Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Smell of Books

[Image from GreenBriarPictureShows]

Those of you who listen to radio may have caught an oddly portentous report by PRI’s Alex Gallafent back in April, in which your humble proprietor had a minor speaking role. The hook for Gallafent’s piece, “The sweet smell of literature”, is a study published last fall in Analytical Chemistry by group of British and Slovenian materials science types. Their specific interest is in the chemical breakdown of the paper in old books and manuscripts, and how this knowledge might be used to evaluate the state of historical collections in libraries and, perhaps, to help preserve them.

I smiled to myself during the phone interview with Gallafent when he mentioned that particular study. I had intended to blog about it when it first came out because the title grabbed me right away: “Material degradomics: On the smell of old books.” Unfortunately, the actual experiment turned out to be a run-of-the-mill chemical analysis of the volatiles given off by bits of old paper baked for a day at 176 ºF. According to the GC/MS analysis, this treatment produced acetic acid (vinegar), already known to be a marker of paper breakdown, and a bunch of aldehydes (pentanal, hexanal, octanal, nonanal, and decanal) associated with the paper’s rosin content.

Despite its title, the study itself involves no odor analysis—other than a lyrical sentence in the introduction that mentions “grassy notes with a tang of acids.” The real variables of interest are things only paper conservators could love: the degree of polymerization of the cellulose, the paper’s lignin and gelatin content, its pH, fiber composition, etc. The lead author, one Matilja Strlič, does a lot of off-gassing himself, chiefly to flog a conceptual framework he calls “degradomics” (a play on metabolomics which is a play on proteomics which, in turn, is a play on genomics. Sigh.) The idea is to comprehensively analyze the breakdown components of paper and establish nondestructive sampling methods for assessing the condition of an old book. Ironically many pieces of old paper were harmed in the pursuit of this admirable goal which, as of press time, remains in the realm of pure speculation.

But hey, it’s a sexy idea and Strylič got his fifteen seconds of Warholian fame.

Having finally listened to Gallafent’s radio segment this weekend, I began thinking about the smell of books. I remembered, for example, that when e-readers first hit the market a couple of year ago there was some buzz about a survey result that 43% of students thought smell was one of the most important qualities of a printed book. (Take that, Kindle-heads!) This buzz, as Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy pointed out, was based on a sloppy misreading of the original survey.

I was also thinking about adding smell to books as form of scent marketing for the publishing industry. At an early publicity meeting for What the Nose Knows, someone brought up the idea of a scratch-and-sniff book jacket. The publishing folks were unanimously negative and I agreed—it seemed like a distraction. I thought scented bookmarks might be a worthwhile promotional item, but that was another nonstarter.

Back in the era of Smell-O-Vision and AromaRama, Madison Avenue was hot for the idea of scented books. Here’s an item from the September, 1960 issue of Changing Times: The Kiplinger Magazine. It appears in a feature called “News behind the ads; Matters of interest and significance from the fascinating world of advertising”.

A publisher of paperbacks proposes to scent three novels (The Enemy General, The Stranglers of Bombay, and The Brides of Dracula) with Chanel No. 5 perfume; western and frontier titles with saddle leather scent; flower arrangement books with floral scent; and cookbooks with the odors of freshly cooked bakery goods and seasoning herbs.
The publisher in question was Monarch Books which did a good business in racy-for-the-time novelizations of the lurid horror films produced by England’s Hammer studios. Brides of Dracula starred Peter Cushing as Dr. Van Helsing, along with the
beautiful Yvonne Monlauer, France’s latest sex kitten, as Marianne, whose beauty was her passport to the twilight world of the undead.

Check out the classic trailers here and here, boys and girls, and find out where the campy parts of Indiana Jones came from.

P.S. I can’t find clear evidence that Monarch Books carried through on the idea of scenting its paperbacks. However a lot of used copies of these titles for sale online note heavy cover wear. Perhaps from scratching and sniffing?

P.P.S. Here's another cover for commenter janicki


La Bonne Vivante said...

I actually really love your idea of a scratch-and-sniff cover and scented bookmarks! Too bad....

Unknown said...

I love those old campy book covers. As for old book smells, have you tried Dzing?

Avery Gilbert said...

La Bonne Vivante:

I proposed the bookmarks because it made smelling the promo-scent optional--after all, I didn't have one scent in mind that would fit every page of my book.

Alas . . . publishing is not the most adventurous business when it comes to marketing and unless you play in Stephenie Meyer's league the ad budget isn't there in any case.

Avery Gilbert said...


Interesting suggestion. I bought a copy of The Stranglers of Bombay and put my nose directly on it. Nothing there.

U'll add another cover to the post, just for you!

+ Q Perfume Blog said...

Old books smell to me like that: BIG ALLERGY NOTE coming into your nostrils, BEWARE!
Once I see that brown-ish color I have to turn away slowly so the book won't notice I am there!

By the way, we will grill Argentinians this July, are you joining? It will be a hell of a barbecue!

I just LOVE your blog dearest!!!

Avery Gilbert said...

+Q Perfume Blog:

I did a lot of my research for WTNK in the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue. The old books there have a distinctive smell--perhaps from years of bug spray. Sort of acrid; I was always on the verge of sneezing.

Enjoy grilling your Argentinians. I remember sitting up until 2 a.m. in a cafe in Zurich, Switzerland in 1994 because the English person I was with insisted the World Cup Final would be the most dramatic sporting event EVER. After the scoreless tie I think I fell asleep between the third and fifth penalty kicks and again between the eighteenth and fortieth penalty kicks. Then Brazilian people honked car horns all night (who knew there were so many in Zurich?) and I was hung over for my meetings the next day.

Just saying . . .

Anonymous said...

I love the smell of books; old and new - and the smell of newspapers (The Times smells the best over here) and glossy magazines...

I got excited when I heard Christopher Brosius had made "In the Library", but it was a disappointment.

Anonymous said...

Oddly portentous? Fun radio, I thought!