Friday, March 23, 2007

why i smell

According to the website the best stuff in the world, which lets visitors cast their vote for...the best stuff in the world, the smell of second-hand books is the eighteenth most popular odor (out of a listed sixty-three), barely edging out mint, and falling just below bonfires. Discounting the fact that a) the results are based on an internet poll, and b) the number two most popular smell is "boobs," this is very encouraging news to me, an admitted book sniffer.

Now, before you picture me holed up in a library bathroom with my nose pressed in the spine of Moby Dick (not the whale, itself), recognize that there are many different levels of obsession in all things, including book-sniffing. Take J.D. Roth (sadly, not the host of Fun House), who described his compulsion on his personal blog,, thusly:

The first thing I do when I get a book, or when I pick one up in a store, or at a friend's house, is to sniff it...I have an unwritten, unordered classification for types of smells. If I wanted to, I could write down an entire taxonomy of book smells. There are general categories, of course — musty, smoky, newsprinty, new-y, etc. — but there are also minute gradations — like a late-seventies Harvey comic, like a Del Rey sci-fi paperback, like a grade school library book, like a European food magazine.

Over at the Tribe Booklover’s forum, Mark posted the question, “Do you smell books?”, to which Susie responded:

OK, I'll admit it. I smell books. It all started in junior high. We would order books for english class and when I'd get mine I'd open them and smell them. There's just nothin like the smell of a fresh new paperback straight out of the box.

You said it, Susie. Here’s Ms. Smart, same forum, clearly disgusted:


And then, there's Steve:

My copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell smells like tar.

Neither a confirmation nor a denial, Steve's response is chilling in its ambiguity.

I'm not quite Susie, but I'm no Ms. Smart, either; I have purposely engaged in the act. I don’t do this often, but it happens sometimes when I’m flipping through old picture books. I have no reason for doing this other than my apparent attraction to the weird tang of mildew. It reminds me of being in my elementary school library, where I read, for the first time, books that I still love. I hope that my books smell like that, someday.

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