Of Scents and Sorcery

I was going to talk about agents today. I was going to whine and complain about how condescending they sometimes seem and how that sometimes it feels like they view us authors as tiny little word machines whose only purpose in life is to churn out predictable and easily classified stories for them to put next to other predictable and easily classified stories for the easy sale.

But you know what? Forget about that. Just because I got all riled up last week because of some agent’s  condescending blog post doesn’t mean I need to transfer all that frustration to you. So instead I’m gonna talk about smells.

Huh. That sounded kinda wrong. How about scents? “I’m gonna talk about scents” sounds better right?

Specifically I’m talking about the smells of books. Have you ever smelled a book? Ever stuck your nose in its pages and breathed in its essence?

Oh. Well, maybe I’m the only one then. That would certainly explain all the strange looks I get at the bookstore.

But I’ve noticed that each one is unique. Each book carries it’s own special perfume. Sometimes its a subtle smell, a whiff of ink and glue and the crisp perfume of clean paper. But other times it’s a stronger, more pronounced, almost acrid smell especially with old books where the paper is starting to brown and the edges of their covers are starting to fray. No two of them are ever quite the same.

Sometimes I like to imagine that each book’s individual smell is like a secret code, and if I knew the code I could absorb the story simply by breathing it in.

That’s one thing eBooks will never have. I’ll never be able to take my eReader and breath in the smell of history on a particularly old book or the scent of barely-dry ink on a new one. Don’t get me wrong. I love eBooks. But I don’t think I’ll ever get over holding a real book with real pages in my hands either.

Somewhere along the way, ink and paper combine together. The ink has no understanding of the words it has been entrusted to convey. The paper has no consciousness of its precious cargo. But somehow these two unwitting accomplices work together to create something of meaning. A memory, a story, a shard of the author’s soul.

It’s a kind of magic in its way. And I’ll never stop believing in it.


13 responses to “Of Scents and Sorcery

  1. I love the smell of books! I prefer the smell of my own books after they’ve been on the shelves for a while and the combination of dust and whatever it was I was doing when I last read them creates a familiar and friendly odour. What a lovely post.

  2. http://www.beatbloodpressure.wordpress.com

    Hi Albert,

    Sorry to hear about the experience with your agents and congratulation to the way you are dealing with it 🙂

    My great uncle was a journalist in Berlin, and obviously also a passionate reader. Whenever I would come into his appartment, the first thing you noticed was the smell of books, books from 1890’s, books from the post war era, old issues of “The Spiegel”, some Goether, Proust, Hanna Arendt, thin, thick, yellow, colourful or just prints. They all had their individual scent and it was lovely. Sometimes I think just by the smell of the book you can tell whether it is a good book, a heavy one, light literature, something pleasing, or just garbage. Alexander Döblin`s “Berlin Alexanderplatz” smelled horrible – and it was.



  3. I love the photo you found to use!

    I used to love the smell of new textbooks! Growing up in a deeply impoverished area, we almost never got them (in the late 1980s, we were using books from the early 60s in many cases).

    You’re too young to remember mimeographs but those we got in all their purple, damp sniffy-wonder 🙂

  4. Love this! I am inspired to create something that will evoke this feeling. Scent is incredibly powerful and we can’t download it, yet, thank goodness.

    I assure you that if the day ever comes when we can download fragrances they will be nothing more than lifeless synthesized molecules that will fail to create any meaningful emotional response. Just more background ‘noise’.

    Cypress, cedar, oakmoss, cistus . . . wow, you’ve got my creative wheels turning.
    Great post.

  5. “Sometimes I like to imagine that each book’s individual smell is like a secret code….I could absorb the story by simply breathing in. ” I KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU MEAN ! Of course you can’t absorb the story by smell but the particular smell of a book, properly imprinted, can activate certain visions in the mind. This happened when I was 3 or 4 years old and opened up the big illustrated Mother Goose book in my pre reading pictures only days. I have just reached for a 1910 Old Mother West Wind by Thornton W. Burgess and the smell activated visions of all those unique style animal drawings. The paper, therefore has to be aware of its precious cargo(so poetically put). I’m talking real science here. A particular therapy practiced by some psychologists and psychiatrists for addiction, low self esteem, anxiety, depression is called aroma therapy. I thought it the epitome of quackery. But they train you to associate certain smells to alter moods and after the association is imprinted one can activate the positive dynamics but merely imagining the particular smell to achieve mood modification. That makes some sense and so your book smell theory has efficacy. Or that means your are whacko and I am nuts for agreeing with you. It would not be unreasonable to conclude that the ink and the paper are IN concert and not unwitting accomplices as you suggest. Once held the book absorbs a bit of the reader’s soul if the reader so enters into covenant with a book. About says you are in Florida. What part. I am in North Miami.

  6. So true–I love the dusty old book smell. You’re right–it is the scent of magic.

  7. I am so glad you are a book smeller. It’s a wonderful thing. The fresh opportunity of a new book, or the comfortable feeling of home in an old book. There is magic there.

    I myself smell books, and old ones have a particular good smell to them. Or at least to me. And then there are the books from certain time periods, that I find weird and won’t go near…. the late 70’s to mid 80’s children books… Ever noticed that? The weird smell that is.

  8. Love this post Albert. And so true, not that I always smell books, but I love holding books in my hands and turning the pages one by one in anticipation of what is written on each following page.

  9. LOL! Nope you aren’t the only one! i LOVE smelling my new books and the whiff off my old ones. I cradle them, I hug them, sometimes if they are my favourite books, I give them a little kiss!

  10. Have you been spying on me? I love the smell of books, too. I also love your eloquent writing. “The ink has no understanding of the words it has been entrusted to convey. The paper has no consciousness of its precious cargo. But somehow these two unwitting accomplices work together to create something of meaning. A memory, a story, a shard of the author’s soul.” That’s just exquisite.

  11. I love touching books. There’s just nothing like the feel of paper in your hand. E-books won’t be able to replace that.

  12. I spent, as I think most of us who write did, a great deal of time around books, in libraries, in book stores. I have purchased more than my fair share of books at book fairs and yard sales. You are right, there is just something about the smell of a book. No ebook, no audio CD will ever capture that magical smell.

    Great post!


  13. Pingback: The End is Near (and we deserve it). . . . Pole Dancing for Jesus « Author Piper Bayard

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