Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The smell of books

Rachael Morrison, who works at the Museum of Modern Art Library, began a piece of performance art a year ago that consists of smelling every book in the collection, starting with the first call number in the Library of Congress classification system. She says, "I document the performance in a ledger, recording the call number, title, and a description of the smell of each book. The goal of this personal olfactory exploration is to foster a discussion of the future of print media, the ways we read, methods of classification, and the way in which smell is entwined with memory."

I am reminded of one of my favorite bits from How I Became a Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely, when Pete attends a book exposition:

"Along one wall were booths for hardware companies, where you could try out little hand-held iPod-style devices for reading. I picked up the Toshiba Dante and the girl showed me how to scroll through. I started reading one of the Harry Potter books on the light-up screen, but I found myself missing the feeling of dominance that comes from cracking the spine in two. I suggested she add a perfume dispenser that emitted the stink of dye and cut paper. She didn't seem interested."

I remember as a little kid I would smell every book I was reading. I have always liked how most new books smell and often the smell of antique books, too. Of course, library books occasionally can smell unpleasant: think cigarette smoke or bad perfume.

I am not personally interested in reading books on an e-reader because of how reading a traditional, physical book involves more senses than just sight. A physical book is tactile--I like actually turning the pages--and of course there is the smell. Says Bob Stein of the Institute for the Future of the Book: "These smells have an evocative power, especially for people who grew up loving books," and I certainly did!

Photograph of Rachael Morrison by Michael Schmelling


  1. I love this topic! I remember you telling me about the iPod thing once... that is too funny. :) Technology doesn't really smell like anything and, as much as I love it, I do love the smell of books -- especially new ones! The ones with really bright white pages seem to smell better than the recycled ones, though.

  2. A New York Times candle that smells like newsprint!