COVER TO COVER
SMELLY BOOKS: SMELLING AND SNIFFING PAGES
February 23, 2021
Powell’s City of Books, the world’s largest used and new bookstore, has created a perfume that smells like a good old-fashioned book. A scented journey from books that smell to books about smell.
The demise of the independent bookstore was gloomily declared when big chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders took over the bookselling scene in the 1990s. But the rise of Amazon soon sounded the death knell for them in turn; all the Borders stores closed about a decade ago, and Barnes & Noble is hanging on only by a thread. Neither was a match for a company that could ship any book available to any corner of the globe, and with incredible speed if you are an Amazon Prime customer! Now, in the last decade, the concept of the paper book itself has come under threat from the so-called e-book, which can be instantly downloaded onto one’s handheld device. For the avid reader, Amazon designed its own electronic reading device, the Kindle, which can store an astonishing six thousand books—the approximate capacity of an entire library at a midsize US college. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, the average person in the United States reads twenty-four books a year on a Kindle, while people who prefer traditional books read an average of fifteen. For those like me, who grew up surrounded by actual books, Kindles and other devices seem practical for some purposes but lack specific characteristics of a book that are indissociable from its appeal. There are the haptic aspects, like holding the book in your hand, feeling its weight and the paper’s texture, turning the pages. Then there is the beauty of the object itself: the paper’s surface, its binding, the typography and layout, the cover design. Illustrations, photographs, and any sorts of charts or diagrams are never as dynamic and lively on an electronic reading device as in a well-produced old-fashioned book, and are sometimes frustratingly illegible at that reduced size. Just imagine John James Audubon’s extraordinary bird studies on a tiny phone screen! Another aspect that makes reading a traditional book pleasurable is its smell. Yes, books smell, and this is one more reason why many of us prefer the apparently outdated print publication. If the aroma is not the chemical smell of the inks in a freshly printed book, it is likely the smell of the paper slowly rotting away, or the dust the volume has accumulated while resting on the shelf. For me, the smell of a book is one of comfort and familiarity, stability and safety. For all those bibliophiles who thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic were temporarily locked out of their favorite bookstores, Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, devised a new perfume that actually smells like bookstores and library stacks. (Perhaps it is also, more darkly, a reference to the common side effect of the virus in which the victim loses their sense of smell.) Now, while we are reading our conveniently downloaded Haruki Murakami e-novel, we can still enjoy the scent of books. Alternatively, we can spritz a little on and wander the world smelling like a librarian or bookshop clerk.
One downside of the Powell’s book perfume, to my mind, is that we cannot choose particular books we desire to smell like. How could the formula be tweaked to evoke the Bible or Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto? Would Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) smell like beef bourguignon? How about a whiff of dead fish for Clarice Lispector’s The Woman Who Killed the Fish (1968)? Want to smell like dark or milk chocolate? Look no further than a scent based on Roland Dahl’s marvelous Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964). I can imagine limitless possibilities—as many as there are books worth a smell. This admittedly slightly ridiculous exercise gets a little deeper if we consider books that actually treat scent as a protagonist. There are countless books on the subject of smell and perfume, including several iconic ones, for instance Marcel Proust’s sweet-smelling In Search of Lost Time (1913), Virginia Woolf’s odorous Flush (1933), and Charles Baudelaire’s aromatic The Flowers of Evil (1857).
Taste, not smell, triggers the narrator’s involuntary memories in In Search of Lost Time. Yet Proust offers plenty of convincing arguments for smell as the most suggestive and memorable of the senses: “When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls.” Flush, Virginia Woolf’s biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, is dominated by smell. For the dog, “love was chiefly smell; form and color were smell. . . . To describe his simplest experience with the daily chop or biscuit is beyond our power.” Yet Woolf did indeed have the powers to describe in great detail the odors of London, of humans and dogs, making the book a chef-d’oeuvre of olfactory prose. Baudelaire was a smell writer who did not stint on sensory impressions. He frequently wrote directly about smell; in his poem “Le Flacon” (The Flask), part of The Flowers of Evil, he is a poet with a perfumer’s sensibility. The creativity and imagery of his words are so seductive that one quickly begins to associate scents, smells, and odors with every passage. Two more recent entries into the pantheon of smelly books are Patrick Süskind’s Perfume (1985) and Luca Turin’s The Secret of Scent (2006). Süskind’s Perfume takes us to the stenches of eighteenth-century France and includes some of the most virtuosic descriptions of sweet air and stink I’ve ever read. A man named Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born with a supernatural sense of smell and becomes a perfumer, capturing the world’s scents. He goes to Grasse in the south of France, the world capital of perfume, to perfect his skills, only to discover that he generates no smell of his own. He sets out to capture what he understands to be the ultimate perfume, the scent of a beautiful young virgin, which evokes “a piece of thin, shimmering silk” combined with “pastry soaked in honey-sweet milk.” To obtain this smell, he has to commit several murders. He is eventually captured by the police and sentenced to death. On his walk to the guillotine, Grenouille wears a new perfume that is so enchanting, his death sentence is reversed in a last-minute pardon, and he walks away a free man who has mastered the power of smell.
Turin is perhaps an outlier in this lineup of stink writers. He is a scientist by trade, and only an amateur perfumer. But he has an excellent nose. The Secret of Scent includes some moderately successful descriptions of perfume, but what makes the book fascinating is an audacious piece of science. Turin boisterously calls out as false the widely accepted notion that the smell of a molecule depends solely on its shape, arguing that the vibrations within the molecule play a role in everything from the smell of roses to that of rotting garbage.
In the age of synthetic pheromones, when one cannot open a magazine without being assaulted by the latest fragrances, it might just be that the Powell’s book-perfume is actually a devious ploy to make us buy more books—a scented version of subliminal advertising. But I suppose this is a rare manifestation of capitalism that doesn’t seem terrible at all. Why not seduce all of us to pick up more books and read them, whether they deal with smell or otherwise?
Maria Araya was born in Medellín, Colombia. She has been a sailing instructor for most of her adult life after receiving her PhD in cellular and molecular biology from the ETH Zurich.
Cover photo courtesy of: Lindsey Westbrook