Someone asked me recently, “What’s that lovely smell, the one you get in old bookshops, made of?”
Dust and ideas, as near as I can tell. And it’s not nearly so esoteric as one might think.
This past Friday some synchronicity appeared when two very different pals from the book world forwarded information on book smells. Lara in Canada sent the above photo about a new (quite nicely packaged) perfume called “Paper Passion.” And my agency, Harold Ober, tweeted this link:
As the mentalfloss article states, old books carry “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.” Yes, we all agree that the smell of books presents their history–and that it’s a pretty nice smell, to have inspired a perfume!
The vanilla-and-acid analysis is poetic, and as Charles Lamb said, “A book reads the better which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots, and dog’s ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins.” Plus, I have this somewhat silly idea that old books are heavier because they take in not only smells from their readers, but weight, from their readers’ minds.
As a college student I often helped a friend who worked in Psych Services check the meeting rooms before locking up at night. Sometimes when we opened the door of one of those little counseling cubicles, the heaviness of what had been discussed in there lingered on the very air. I don’t mean “vibes and aura” stuff, just that there was a palpable (usually dark) residue in those rooms.
Of course, not all thoughts are ponderous and ominous like thunderclouds; some are featherlight, airy as sunbeams. No matter which, it just makes sense that people reading books, pulling ideas out of them, leave a little of themselves behind–be that the breath of thought or the breadcrumbs of lunch.
All those leftovers contribute to the book’s smell, its appearance, its personality, if you will. This is something bibliophiles know and respect. In our bookstore, we often see people stop just inside the door and take a big sniff. And we know he or she is honoring the long history of humanity’s eternal library, inhaling that wafting odor of dust and ideas.