New books have little more than a papery, maybe slightly inky smell—like a newspaper, only less so. But the allure is more from the overall package than the lingering traces of glue and fiber. A new book doesn’t have any wear along the edges to betray its weakness, and there are no creases to mar graphic impact on the cover. Interior papers still have their texture un-oiled by (many) human hands. Hardcovers’ jackets don’t have any tears and paperbacks have intact spines. Unless you’re unlucky, for which the Borders and Barnes&Nobles of the world give no credit (believe me, I’ve tried).
Only older books get a little honest stink. Not that it’s much. When you gather them all up, like in the proper used book stores (those with squeaky, painted wooden floors, sagging shelves, and preferably cats), you walk in the room and smell book.
Musty seems to be the most common adjective. And it’s a hard one to argue with, mostly because it’s entirely accurate. Old books wear the patina of must with pride. I’m not even entirely sure what the word is supposed to mean anymore, now that I’ve become so familiar with it as a descriptor in the bookish context. And I don’t have the greatest sense of smell myself. But one of my “currently reading” list, The Biography of a Cathedral (plus exceeding long subtitle on link) predates the ISBN at 66 years
This complete copyright edition is produced in full compliance with the Government’s regulations for conserving paper and other essential materials.
and reminds me every time I even give it the scarcest glance (or whiff) what any good old book smells like. It’s the dust mostly. Even if it isn’t actually dusty. The date due slip only has three dates marked: the first with a return date of “NO 29 ’01” and the second to mending. Finally, my own is SE 10 ’10, because nowadays even a Modoc County Library patron can renew her books online (thank goodness). And the little orange card in front from earlier circulation methods (so cumbersome!) has quite a few dates stamped. Once side:
and the other, on the back, and on the same page as the date due slip (I suppose someone was new?) we have a checkout at the Stronghold branch (or so I assume BR. stands for. I could be wrong) and at Willow Ranch. JAN 31 1946 and OCT 31 1956, respectively. I nearly left the second date in the year 1936, which would have been quite a feat, but I still appreciate the Halloween due date, even if it wasn’t mine. Oddly, though I’m familiar with Willow Ranch, even if their library branch is gone, I only know Stronghold as the name for the school in Canby (and that only because I’ve subbed there). I’m a terrible historian of my local area.
In a perfect world, books smell like books.
As a non-smoker, books exposed to great amounts of cigarette smoke are in no way related to my perfect world. Which may well be selfish. But when looking up the titles of donated books in the library catalogue (online yay! even if they don’t spell it with the “-ue”) I came across several, mostly about the civil war that just wafted the leftovers of some dirty habit.
Now that was mean.
And even though something about cigarette smoke, unlike any other kind of smoke, simply make me ill, at least such books can be aired out. I don’t doubt some of the books on my shelves have been exposed to such a smell, and don’t bother me. Likely even Biography of a Cathedral. Especially when you consider the era. So while undoubtedly cigarettes leave their own scent on the leaves of used books to make up that entire experience, that’s okay.
Unlike dropping a book in coffee. Coffee smells delicious in a cup, but I’m not sure how well it mingles with dust and cigarettes. Mostly you just get sticky stiff pages, if you’re lucky; or it’s simply unreadable from the warps. (A few drops on the pages, well, then I know it’s a well-read book.)