How the smell of old books recalls memories of youth and a lesson in ageing gracefully
I am looking for a way back into nostalgia.
- Total Shares
“When I was home, manuscripts surrounded me. My friends told me, ‘you have gone crazy. You can’t talk about anything else.’ I said, ‘leave me alone.’ The manuscripts had a certain smell, and they said ‘you are smelling of manuscripts, Abdel Kadir.’”
— The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts, by Joshua Hammer (Simon & Schuster, 2016)
Every so often, some young person discovers that the attar-makers of X place in India — sometimes Jaipur, sometimes Mumbai, sometimes Falaananagar — have invented a perfume that smells like petrichor, the earth after rain. I wonder why no one has ever thought to make an attar that smells of old books. Could it be because they are generally ahl-e kitaab, people of the book? And the beautiful smell of a book is the smell of its ageing?
Or could it be that we have neglected our sense of smell in the race for evolution? We have names for colours, names that run riot across the language from azure and alizarin to zucchini and zebra-striped. But how many words can you think of that describe smells?
I propose here a new word for the smell of old paper: Bibliomortic. The smell of the death of paper. This is why new books never smell as good as old. They are bibliojeune.
I will never forget the horror of smelling my first textbook in kindergarten in school. I was young, I think, but I had always thought of books as things that could be used for everything. You could read them, of course, but you could also write in them, colour them, build with them, sit on them, use them as repositories for chocolate wrappers and bus tickets to really nice places like the Gateway of India, dry your face on them when you’d been crying.
And so on my first day in kindergarten I thought I would bury my nose in my textbook so that I could smell the familiar scents of that world of rag paper and ink. Instead what came off the page was an antiseptic smell, a pungent aroma.
Today, I know it was my fear of institutions, one that I carry with me still, coming back at me. I had reflected it into the book and when it drifted back into my nose, I began to cry. I did not stop crying for several months, long after most boys had settled down into the fascism of school.
You don’t think of school as fascism? Wear the same clothes? Do the same thing at the same time? Sing the same school song as loudly as you can? Belong, march, step up, play the game? No? Well, your textbooks probably smelled wonderful too.
I smell books all the time. But I know now, as I did not then, that what I am looking for is a bit of myself. I am looking for a way back into nostalgia. I developed a horror of nostalgia when I saw how it is actually a function of ageing.
The truly young — and this has nothing to do with chronology — see the past as a resource for the present. The ageing — and I know some ageing 30-year-olds — see the present as a space in which to celebrate the pastness of the past and to lament its unattainable beauties. How can I reclaim a way of calling up who I was without losing some sense of how that person suffered anxieties now put to rest? How can I smell the real smells of my youth?
I bury my nose in a book. I do not smell top notes of vanilla and such nonsense. I smell myself. This is what I should like to smell like. I should like to end as books do, fading away, drifting in small siroccos of papermulch towards the end.
No such grace awaits me, I know; I will go into that gentle night with all the effluvia our organic chemistry produces; I will pass from the smells of the living that I have sought to conceal with everything from mouth fresheners to soaps to deodorants into the smells of death and the charnel house, and from there into the dry smell of stardust.
Meanwhile books will smell lovely, not because they do smell lovely, but because we love them. It is our love of books we smell in books. There may be hope for us yet.
(This article first appeared in Harper's Bazaar India, June 2017.)