Book Smell

To a book lover, the smell of a book is as important as the content. The first thing many of us do after getting a book is open it, bring it close to our nose and breathe in. Can we describe that smell? Most likely, the answer is no. Similarly, most of us cannot characterise the aroma of the main reading room of the National Library in Kolkata. Even old bookshops in Daryaganj in Delhi and Andheri in Mumbai have characteristic smells that we remember but cannot describe. Our cultural heritage has made us linguistically challenged to describe smell.

Smell is not just a sensory perception, it is also a social and cultural phenomenon. Yet, the poor nose has had a rough ride in the western culture. Plato famously claimed that sweet odours were for prostitutes, and the Enlightenment gave eyes and ears primacy over every other sensory organ. In fact, the sense of smell is still largely ignored as a knowledge marker of our past. In 2015, Dutch researcher Asifa Majid led a team that “compared how often speakers of 13 diverse languages, including English, around the globe talked about sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell in everyday conversation”. They found that in 12 of those communities “vision was the most talked about perceptual modality, followed by hearing”. Except for Semai, a language from the Malay Peninsula, smell leapt to second place, the team noted.

Now, two British heritage researchers want to start a multidisciplinary dialogue on smell, to describe it and relate it to culture-specific heritage. They started with old books — commonly recognisable objects of cultural significance. As part of their field study, the duo, Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strli, at the University College London Institute for Sustainable Heritage went about asking people to describe the smell of old books and the aroma of an old heritage London library and recording their responses.

In one experiment, the visitors to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery were presented with an odour sampled from a 1928 edition of Panait Istrati’s Les Chardons du Baragan, published by Bernard Gasset, obtained from a second-hand bookshop in London. The smellers were then asked to describe the odour. Among 79 respondents, 27 said that it smelled like “chocolate” or used similar terms such as “Cadbury”, “cocoa” or “chocolatey”. Ten people thought that it was “coffee”, and then “wood”, “burnt”, “old” and so on. Some more colourful descriptors of the smell were “rotten socks”, “mothballs”, “biscuits” and “bourbon”.

The setting of the other experiment was St Paul’s Cathedral’s Dean and Chapter library in London. The collection of this famous library was almost completely charred in the Great Fire of London. It was restocked in 1712 with close to 2,000 volumes from the library of Henry Compton, the then bishop of London. Even a speck of dust here is no less than 300 years old.

Here random visitors were asked to describe the characteristic smell of this heritage institution. All the visitors who came to the library found it had a “woody” aroma. When asked again, 86% came up with the answer “smoky”, 71% “earthy” and a significant 4% “vanilla”. They also answered questions on the intensity of the smells ranging between “strong aroma” and “very strong aroma”. More than 70% of the respondents described the smell as “pleasant”; “mildly pleasant” and “neutral” each had 14% supporters.

According to the researchers, smell should also be a part of the “intangible heritage” list as defined by UNESCO.To that end, their research focused on defining heritage smells and arguing their importance. They laid emphasis on creating a process for “the consideration for smells in heritage documents and guidelines, leading to the identification of smell as part of cultural significance of a place or object”. Heritage smells can also be used as a means to “engage and communicate with the audience”. For instance, if the century-old Madras Literary Society Library in Chennai has a distinct “mouldy” smell, that can be defined and preserved as a heritage marker and can be used to build a strong bond between the reader and the library.

Bembibre and Strli reported their finding in the paper “Smell of heritage: a framework for the identification, analysis and archival of historic odours” published in the journal Heritage Science. They also created a “Historic Book Odour Wheel” to characterise and archive the aroma associated with old books. The wheel, somewhat similar in design and objective to the one for wine-tasting, according to the researchers, is “intended to be an interdisciplinary collaboration tool, used by untrained noses”.

The wheel can serve as an example of an emerging collaborative framework for scientists and historians. The framework can be used to identify, analyse and archive smells that have cultural significance. This would pave the way for understanding the role of smells in perceiving heritage, something that is yet to be properly explored. The smell profiles of objects in a museum derived from the wheel can be used by conservators to ascertain the conditions of them and take measures to stop or delay the decaying process.

In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust writes, “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.” Distinct odours serve as powerful triggers for the limbic system of brain that deals with human emotions and memory. A smell of freshly fried prawns or a strong whiff of eau de cologne does remind us of our grandmother’s sweaty, reddened face in the kitchen or father’s stern look at a shrieking mother when the bottle of perfume broke. One day we will be able to correctly describe that smell and decide once and for all if that old book smelled woody or chocolatey.

By Debkumar Mitra is a Kolkata-based science writer