Monday 3 February 2014

The Smell of Reading

I often wondered why I never caught on to the Kindle craze. Electronic books are so convenient, aren't they? You can carry hundreds of them around with you and not feel the weight. You can also skip from one to the other without reaching for another volume.

Displays, the great bane of electronic devices, have also improved over the last years and Kindle and others have managed to simulate paper like qualities and appearance. Yet still, I dislike them with a passion.

The reason of my annoyance with electronic books may be simple however. They don't smell. This may sound odd and slightly OCD but it is something that falls into the category which others describe as 'the experience of reading'. For many, including me, reading is not just about a string of letters and words, it is about an experience that opens up another world and, strangely enough, the odour of book glue and acid coming from the pages are an integral part of it.

Can you smell the reading?

German books for example have moved to acid free paper which is a real downer for me. American hardbacks are still a blast in terms of their smell and books from the 1950s and 1960s which have lingered in public libraries for decades (often unread) are the pinnacle of joy. Nothing compares to the blend of collected dust and heavy paper acid!

This may sound very obsessive compulsive but I think part of it can be explained by the fact that reading is actually (in evolutionary terms) a very un-human activity. It requires concentration and cognitive skills applied to a string of horizontal letters which is biologically alien to us. It takes something special to keep us reading, in other words, and that something for me is the accompanying smell of the pages which forms part and parcel of the reading experience. In fact, the odour of a book often becomes part of the story that unfolds on the pages. I think I may even remember John Dos Passos U.S.A. simply by the smell that come from its bend pages of the ancient Penguin edition I have.

I guess as long as there are people like me out there, printed books will have a future.


  1. Oh, yes... YES!! The smell of a book, an old book. Browned, and foxed a little, yes, the smell is evocative. For me there is a clear divide, both equally exquisite, both equally transportative. One is the smell of a slightly damp old book, from an old church hall, or forgotten corner of a garage (something too good to throw out, yet something forgotten is in there). The second is the smell of an old dry book. The old dry book in the heat of summer can be heady, scent wafting while the brown vignetting of the page affords a gentleness on the eye.

  2. That's so true! I wasn't thinking about it yet but you are right, there are in fact so many different smells! And your comment about church hall books brought back memories of times listening to dreary sermons :-) You are right about dry books in summer as well! I remember fondly my summer reads that have somehow captured the sun, the beach and still have some sand stuck in between the pages ... :-)