In the not too distant future the majority of readers might read their books electronically, on Kindles, iPads, and the like. In the meantime, though, the paper kind populates bookstores and libraries. And the older a book is, the smellier it is. The World’s Alex Gallafent explores those odors for us. (Photo: Alex Gallafent)
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MARCO WERMAN: Future readers, of course, may read their books electronically on kindles, iPads and the like. In the meantime the real books populate real book stores and libraries. The older a book is, the smellier it is. Here’s The World’s Alex Gallafent.
ALEX GALLAFENT: Thomas Lannon doesn’t usually go around sniffing the books. But here’s what he gets when he sticks his nose into an 18th century domestic accounts book.
THOMAS LANNON: It has a nice musty, it’s musty. I would call it musty, but what is must really? Do we know what must is?
GALLAFENT: A profound question, one of many for Lannon. You see, he works for the New York Public Library in the Manuscripts and Archives Division. He inhales again.
LANNON: It has a shoe box. There’s a shoe box. It has a shoe box-ness.
GALLAFENT: Shoe box-ness, mustiness, variations on a theme. That scent lying on the periphery of our experience when we pick up an old book. At least it lies on the periphery for most of us. A couple of years back a Slovenian chemist named Matija Strilic was conducting research in the conservation departments of European libraries.
MATIJA STRILIC: And every now and then I notice conservators smelling old paper as if they were able to tell whether its more or less degraded by the way it smells.
GALLAFENT: He was intrigued.
STRILIC: And I thought well, perhaps there is some substance to it.
GALLAFENT: There is, a chemical substance no less. The smell is made up of VOCs, volatile organic compounds. The VOCs are given off by paper as it slowly degrades, as it dies. Strilic, who’s based at the Center for Sustainable Heritage in London, began analyzing the relationship between smell and paper. Surprise, surprise. The smellier the book, the more fragile, the more at risk it tends to be. Now Strilic is developing an extra sensitive book sniffing machine.
STRILIC: An artificial nose with which we could potentially replace the nose of a conservator, or perhaps enhance the scent, if you like.
GALLAFENT: Until then, the New York Public Library will have to make do with the noses of Thomas Lannon and the Head of Conservation, Shelly Smith.
LANNON: It smells of pockets, people’s pocket.
SHELLY SMITH: Or your uncle’s hat.
LANNON: The inside of a purse.
GALLAFENT: They show me a book from Pakistan that’s redolent of onions.
LANNON: It has a bit of an onion smell.
SMITH: You might be right.
GALLAFENT: And even though that’s probably thanks to how the book was stored, Smith says books from different countries often do have different smells. In some places book are made from high quality paper with most of the acidic content removed during processing. But in some part of the world, the paper industry is less advanced. Paper gets made more or less directly from mashed up trees with the corrosive acids left in.
SMITH: And as it ages it gets very dark, it gets very brittle and does give off a different type of smell.
GALLAFENT: And is that true even today with new books being published around the world?
SMITH: Absolutely. Absolutely. As a matter of fact some materials that come here from the library, we automatically reformat because we know that even though they are new materials, they won’t last very long because they’re made of that quality of paper.
GALLAFENT: So the smell of a book contains useful information about it’s physical state. But there’s more. Smells seep into our consciousness, especially the smells we get while reading old books.
AVERY GILBERT: Rich smells that kind of permeate the entire experience of handling the books and reading them.
GALLAFENT: Writer Avery Gilbert is a self-described smell scientist. He remembers precisely the smell of a old Latin school book from his childhood. A book with glue, pasted along it’s spine.
GILBERT: To this day I can remember that acrid glue smell and image the Latin Dictionary perfectly.
GALLAFENT: The smell makes a book more than a book, it gives it extra life, character and sometimes as Lannon and Smith have discovered, it can capture the essence of a book, even a relatively boring one.
LANNON: This is a book about books. It’s a list of books purchased by the library showing the date, April 1923. This one smells a bit of concrete, I think there’s some concrete. Or maybe, it smells like a gymnasium.
SMITH: Institutional, like linoleum.
LANNON: It smells of the color gray. It smells like what it is I suppose.
GALLAFENT: For The World, I’m Alex Gallafent in New York.
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