Perfume of the pages

Few things smell better than bookstores.

There are people who are driven mad with lust over the smell of a particular cologne. The smell of a favorite dish is enough to make us salivate. I would think that the scent wafting from the floors of a bookstore has the same effect.

Enter a bookstore, and take a long, deep breath. Inhale: it’s like a million pages fluttering to you, like butterflies approaching a lone flower in a desolate garden. It’s like a marriage of the earthy scent of the trees, and the machines that processed and printed and bound the dead trees into books.

Yet there are scents beyond wood pulp and glue and ink that can drive you crazy in the bookstore. Not all books smell the same; not just because glossy paper carries a note of plastic, or older books tend to pack a stronger punch than new ones. Or how new books need to sit on the shelf a little longer for the scent to properly age, like wines left in cold dark places.

Some people speak of the “delicate habit of reading.” I think that while almost all of us are taught to read, the act is often drilled into us like a chore. A job, a part of the drudgery of homework. Book reviews are rushed, in favor of Sparknotes. Chapters that don’t advance the plot are skipped. For those who have yet to obsess and linger over book smells, book summaries smell like any other book. Skipping a chapter doesn’t make the book smell any different.

The sense of smell, if anything, had little to do with reading. Of course we read with our eyes, and the blind read patterns through touch. Some of us listen to music while reading. Many speak highly of the feel of real pages on the fingers (heck, even Kindles “feel like paper”). But the sense of smell? Perhaps bordering on the ridiculous.

Scent, if anything, has “little to do” with reading. We’ve never been taught to smell the book, much less smell the work, as we read it. Besides, sniffing books is kind of weird.

It may come across as weird, but there’s a reason for that, I guess: the smells of a book’s world emerge only when we immerse ourselves in it.

You smell the squalor of a lane, lined and caked with the years of generations of families living there. The happiness over the smell of stale bread, but the sadness over the unmistakable aroma of the drink. You smell poverty, misery, redemption.

You smell the scent of freshly washed hair, run over by the delicate fingers of a beautiful woman. You smell lipstick, mingling together with heavy breaths and the bouquet of wine. You encounter the scent of forbidden kisses, of bodies entwined together. You smell lust, romance, sex.

You smell singed leather armor, worn by dragon-slayers who block fire with shields and sheer force of will. You smell the ground that bends and breaks beneath the claws of the monster, or the blood that drips into the fields. You smell courage, bravery, fantasy.

Speaking of blood, you smell it in every punch; like catching knuckles to the nose. You smell the sharp scents of bullets leaving chambers, just as you smell death on the cold asphalt road. You smell revenge — and yes, bloody murder.

You smell good and evil. You smell love and lust. You smell right and wrong. You smell waiting and hoping. Bury your nose deep enough and you smell heaven. Sometimes, you smell zombies.

I think it’s that collection of — and the obsession over — potential imagined smells that assaults the senses as you enter a bookstore. Smells waiting to be freed — to be savored at their purest — by the reader that takes that book off the shelf, and takes it home.

Some people speak of “burying your nose in books.” Immerse yourself in a book long enough, and you start smelling things. Not because you’ve gone mad, but because the world of the book has consumed you — swallowed you — and in its belly there is nothing but the words you read, and the smells of the book, wafting from right under your nose.

Right there: the joy of reading. Like good food, or the aroma of a favorite perfume, the smell of a book brings its own distinct pleasure.

In Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Peter Süskind writes:

The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off; it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.

For the guy who wrote the book (literally) on the hypnotic effects (and then some) of odor and smells, he’s right there is no remedy for the maddening scent of books, except to sit down and read.

Or in the case of bookstores, to just pull the book down and buy it.

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