Smelly Books

This weekend I stopped at Half-Price Books.  If you don’t have one near you, I’m very sorry for you, because it’s a great place.  The name is pretty much dead on – they sell used books for about half the cover price.  Sometimes it’s less than that, especially on hardback books, and they have clearance books for $2.

One of the reasons I love this store is that you can often find old books there.  I’m not talking about out of print books, though they have some of those, but rather old copies of well known books.  This weekend, for example, I picked up a paperback copy of Stephen King’s Christine.  It was a first paperback print, from 1983.  The pages have yellowed some, but more importantly, the book smells.

I like smelly books, books that have that unmistakable musty scent of age.  This book has that smell.  It’s almost sweet, like flowers just going over the edge.  It’s the smell of years gone by, while this book sat on a shelf or maybe in a box somewhere.  It smells like memory.

In fact, scent is one of the strongest ties to memory.  The olfactory bulb of the human brain is located in the limbic system, which is closely tied to memory and emotion.  A smell can fire the neurons of memory into action.  Smell is also tied to the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning.

As Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer once noted, “Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower, or a-a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and-and-and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is a – it, uh, it has no-no texture, no-no context. It’s-it’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then-then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible, it should be, um, smelly.”

He’s correct, in more ways than one.  See, scent is tied strongly to memory, but it’s the conditional learning that connects the two properly.  Just as language is built up in childhood, so is our catalog of smells and how we tie those smells to memory.  If you are given an old book as a child, perhaps an old set of fairy tales or a classic Mark Twain novel, you’ll associate that slight musty smell with learning and knowledge.

It’s an issue that eReaders will have to deal with at some point.  Perhaps someone can come up with an “old book” scent that could be applied to an eReader.  Or maybe that old musty scent will die off and be replaced by something different, something unique for every reader.  Who knows?  But the future will be a much different place as we lose the smell of books.


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