Book Perfume

Anyone who has spent enough time at a library knows all about “*book perfume.” For me, the older books smell like a combination of dust, leather, paste, ink, and the ghosts of many fingers turning the pages. Sometimes some of the page edges have been nibbled to fine lace by whatever creatures ingest paper. Often there are ancient tea stains on some pages. Many of the books have had to be re-bound, and those too have their own unique scent.

Just about everyone I know now reads by Kindle, Nook, and all the other electronic devices that allow us to carry around thousands of books at a time. There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, if you travel a lot, it’s very handy to have one with you. You can load up hundreds of books and read at your leisure.

When I used to travel, I always lugged several books with me. I was careful to only take paperbacks with me; even ten of those weighed quite a bit. The idea of running out of books gave me the cold sweats, so when I had to make another connection, I would dash into the terminal to buy a few more books “just in case.” More than once I had to ship my books home, but it was worth having a good selection with me.

Along with the book perfume, there is that comforting feel of a book in the hand. Solid as a Christmas gift and full of light, wisdom, horror, compassion, nobility, fearsome things, history, and all the visuals that come with being so involved in a book that you can actually see the characters in your mind. Often you can hear their voices, too.

I don’t pretend to have read Dante’s Inferno, Proust, all of Shakespeare’s plays, all of Dickens or Victor Hugo, and the great poets; I have read some but not all. I have to admit that as a reader, I mainly read for pleasure and entertainment. I did greatly enjoy English Literature in college, and many books I would not have chosen on my own introduced me to some truly wonderful works.

I have read hundreds of books so far in my lifetime, and some of my own “must reads” (should anyone ask me for suggestions) are authors such as Michener, Victor Hugo, Stephen King, Doug Preston and Lincoln Child (who have each written books together, and some on their own), Mary McGarry Morris, Alice Hoffman, Elizabeth Berg, Ann Rivers Siddons, Pat Conroy (read “Beach Music; it will change your life), Rose Franken, John Irving, J.K. Rowling, Ellen Gilchrist, Donald Harrington (read “With;” it will melt your heart), and oh, so many, many, many more. Even now I hear my book list shouting, “what about me? Me? and ME?”

Reading is a pure pleasure. I have a few hobbies I am passionate about, but reading is Number 1. When I was in grade school, I used to visit the town library just about every Saturday. I’d return last week’s stack, and choose another stack to enjoy over the next week.

One such Saturday I was walking out of the library, carrying several books under my arm. A girl about three grades above me was walking by and stopped me.

“Why are you carrying all those books? Don’t you remember that school’s out for summer?” she asked, looking fiercely down at me.

“I’m—well—reading them,” I replied.

The girl scowled at me and said, “Are you crazy? Why would you read books if you didn’t have to?”

I said, “um, because I like to read?”

“Well, you’re stupid then,” she said and stalked away.

Since everyone in my family read every chance they could get, I knew at that moment that I really was different. I knew I wasn’t stupid for reading books for fun, but it was the first time I felt somehow separated from a lot of people. For the first time in my life I also felt that what some cranky girl thought of me and my reading didn’t bother me—at all. I was the kind of kid who badly wanted others to like me, but I was also at the age where you begin to find your own “tribe.” My few but precious friends all read, and so did I. I remember that I walked home whistling that day.

I also realized that I had been overcome with the perfume of books forever.

*From The Daily Mail, here’s one explanation of ‘book smell:’

“Old book smell’ is generated by the breakdown of cellulose and lignin in paper, which produces organic compounds.

Benzaldehyde adds an almond-like scent, vanillin smells of vanilla and ethyl hexanol has a ‘slightly floral’ scent. Ethyl benzene and toluene, which are also produced give off impart odours.

These volatile organic compounds are created by reactions known as ‘acid hydrolysis’ and  together make up the smell of old books along with other alcohols produced by the reactions.

No one is sure of exactly which chemical compounds contribute to ‘new book smell’.

The scent differs from book to book as different chemicals are used in the making of different volumes.

It is thought the smell derives from three main sources: The paper, inks used to print the book and the adhesives used in book binding.”



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