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Take a moment. Slide your hand down the slick page in front of you, then pick up the magazine in both hands and lift it to your face. Smell: paper, ink, glue, that magical just-printed aroma. The art, the ideas—wait, don’t even think about those yet. Stroke the cover; run your fingers over the spine and along the page ends and up the line of the deep trench of the gutter between pages. Riffle the page edges and flick the corners to feel the crispness against your forefinger.

In short, slip into the pleasures of bibliophilia. This is your body on the bodies of books.

They are our solace when sad, our sensory delights, our friends and our lovers. Our minds and souls, sometimes our dangers and downfalls. They have such a hold over us that in the past, we’ve thought they must have been made by a god—or by the devil. We fall in love with a beautiful cover every day.

Who hasn’t been utterly beguiled by a physically wonderful tome? I once splurged on a novel published in 1928 that was falling apart—but it was falling apart with light purple endpapers embossed in a pattern of flying cranes, with a surprising shimmer and glisten. I don’t remember the story so well now, but I do remember that from time to time in the reading, I paused to touch those endpapers and feel happy.

So I just took that book down and did it again. It felt good. And I rediscovered the pages’ rough deckle edges, another tactile pleasure and a monument to the history of bookmaking … More on that later.

Books are our greatest invention, and they keep us reinventing ourselves. We want to be with them, to stay up all night turning pages, to paint and design and ornament them, to cover our shelves and our tables with them—basically, to live with them—then curl up and read ourselves into a dream between their covers.

We love them. And there are so many reasons why.

Anatomy of a Tome

We are crazy about the bodies of books, their physical presence. How many of us as children tried to make one at home—hoping that all it would take would be a stack of paper and some ink? Then there turned out to be a certain something more to making a book, a je ne sais quoi that makes it stand up, lie down, fall open, and crackle and feel and smell like an entity with form and substance … even while we tell ourselves that

what really matters is the numinous something-beyond-the-page conjured up in words and images.

It has to be a hard copy.

There’s the mysterious come-hither on the shelf, that thin part with the title, author’s name, and publisher; smooth or bumpy, jacketed or not, just waiting for a finger to hook it and pull it free: the spine. It holds the volume together, sure, and hides what we’ve decided we don’t want to see, the folded and gathered sheets of paper stitched and glued inside.

The boards, historically wood, now cardboard, wrapped in cloth or in paper, protecting the body of the book. The pulpy flesh of it, the pages, that fall tenderly open like a fan in your hands. Blow gently to make them sway back and forth, tantalizing with glimpses of a word here and there, or a bright burst of colored illustration. Then put your hand down firmly and read.

Before we had the magical technologies of paper and ink, publication (that is, making some information public) might mean that your ideas were literally written in stone, which could be expensive and time-consuming to arrange. Or you could write on damp clay with a reed. These early texts weren’t curl-up-in-bed material; they were mostly tax records, inventories, and occasionally lists of kings. The oldest piece of writing we have, the Kish tablet, dates as far back as 3500 to 2900 BCE (give or take) and was found in modern-day Iraq, known in ancient times as Mesopotamia. We don’t know exactly what the rows of wedgy cuneiform say, but we cannot stop looking. Any printed word has an allure.

Scrolls made of flexible, rollable papyrus came along just a thousand years after the Kish tablet. The oldest known papyrus document is Egypt’s Diary of Merer (a daily account of doings at a limestone quarry, perhaps contributing to the Great Pyramid), which dates to 2568 BCE. Papyrus was an amazing innovation; it was almost paper, being strips of river reeds laid over each other and beaten more or less flat.

Some writing surfaces might carry more glamor. Some were originally flesh. Vellum (usually made from bleached calfskin) and parchment (made from the untanned skins of sheep, goats, and cows) had their heyday in the Middle Ages; they are more durable than paper, and they are the reason we still have some beautiful books that were hand-copied and -illustrated long ago. But for cost, convenience, portability, and versatility, there’s just nothing like paper, and it continued to develop even as

parchment and vellum ruled the monasteries.

The process for macerating trees and other plants—that is, dissolving and mashing them in liquid—wasn’t developed until around 105 CE, in China. In the next couple of centuries, Chinese papermakers worked with mulberry bark, or cheaper bamboo, or ultra-luxe blue sandalwood bark (still the national favorite). They rolled the gooey pulp flat and thin, then experimented with sizing, a chemical treatment that makes paper absorb ink evenly. With the addition of gypsum, lichen glue, starch, and other sizing agents as yet unidentified, Chinese paper became thinner, whiter, crisper, and amazingly versatile.

As a consequence, Chinese culture used paper like nobody’s business, for clothes, kites, ceremonial money to be burned at funerals … and in the 600s, toilet paper. There’s a contender for the title of most conspicuous consumption: It was far too expensive and precious for everyday use but a desirable item for display and fancy occasions. And if you needed to, you could use it to jot down a few thoughts.

Paper enabled all sorts of revolutions.

A beautiful assortment of antique books from Lola C. @woodwitchh.
A beautiful assortment of antique books from Lola C. @woodwitchh.

Mummy Pages

Paper is not just wood pulp and lignin; along with sizing, it often contains a stabilizer such as kaolin clay or a calcium compound. These ingredients create a sort of ecosystem that might evolve over time. Acid is a well-known danger: If contents are acidic, they might turn brown. Higher-quality paper sometimes contains an alkaline chemical reserve to fight any acids picked up in the environment and keep the paper bright and white for a thousand years (guaranteed!).

Other common ingredients have been cotton, linen, and … mummies? Maybe.

Until about 150 years ago, paper manufacturing was a major consumer of cloth fibers, which led manufacturers into some odd underground chambers—a thrilling and very American cautionary tale. By the 1850s, the U.S. was publishing more newspapers than any other place on earth, and transporting materials to factories made it all terrifically expensive. Paper quality was going down all over the world, as we can see now when we open an old volume and find it foxed—freckled with reddish-brown spots that some scientists think are the result of reduced cloth content and hasty production methods.

Rags suitable for pulping were especially hard to come by, so American manufacturers looked to the one place where old linen was found in abundance: Egypt. The tombs of Egypt, that is, where the linen was doing no good at all wrapped around the limbs of some millennia-year-old mummies. Where we now see precious artifacts that must be preserved, our 19th century counterparts saw raw material (literally).

I do wonder how this idea got workshopped around the factories. The mummies were already here, the bodies already separated from their wrappings. They had sailed here to star in a rather bizarre sort of stage show in which an emcee would strip-tease a centuries-old bonbon for the titillation of more modern humans. According to the calculations of one Isaiah Deck, an enterprising geologist and amateur archaeologist, there were enough mummified people, cats, crocodiles, and other creatures preserved in linen to supply American mills for about fourteen years.

Did anyone put this brainchild to work? It is possible. We can’t account for the whereabouts of every single mummy that came ashore. It is said that during the Civil War, they arrived by the shipload in paper-starved places such as Gardiner, Maine, where their rags were turned into grocer’s paper. When cholera broke out in Gardiner shortly afterward, some people called the conclusion obvious. Today, others point out that the cholera bacteria could not have survived hundreds of years entombed in a dry, airless environment.

But doesn’t paper exist precisely to spread stories like this one?

Giddy Bibliosmia

When you walk into your favorite library or bookstore, you sink into a deep pocket of delicious scent. Vinegar. Vanilla. Grass. Sharp, sweet, and umami. That aromatic cocktail is a bibliophile’s opium, launching us into an immersive, visceral experience. The heady formula quickens the pulse—so much to discover!—at the same time as it soothes the soul. It’s no wonder that perfumes and aromatherapy based on the scents of old books have exploded in popularity. They might make you feel cozy or connected to a time when the pages were damp from the press. Or inspired to write something that will add its own grace notes to these.

Smell is the most primal of the senses and perhaps the hardest to pin down. It’s the first to develop in utero and the one that seems to matter most when we want to be transported to … anywhere we are not at the moment. A spice bazaar. A seaside villa. A field of lavender or narcissus. Any important moment—because smell is plugged into the brain’s limbic system, which regulates emotion, memory, and erotic response. Every can’t-put-a-name-to-it scent emanating from a book promises the fantasies that sustain our humanity. Add all that to the adventures and artworks that we find in the pages, and the experience is transcendent. We recapture our pasts; we entertain intimations of our futures.

That indefinable je ne sais quoi in the vocabulary of scent—well, for books, we do know at least some of the quoi. The smell varies from book to book (paper to paper, ink to ink, paste, leather, etc.), but a few elements stay consistent—though you might be surprised to find out what some of them are. While the other components of a book play a part, the majority of the scent comes from the cellulose and lignin from the trees used for paper. They are among several VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that decay at warm temperatures; we experience the release of their

changed molecules as an aroma.

Advanced bibliophiles can walk into a place blindfolded and tell you where at least a few of the books must be from. They have a keen sense of bibliosmia (or bibliosma), the scent of books, and they can work it like a “nose” in the perfume industry. So the distinctive smoky-sweet aroma of one copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses gave historians a glimpse into the life of its owner, fellow-author T.E. Lawrence.

In London, researcher Cecilia Bembibre asked visitors to the St. Paul’s Cathedral library to describe what they thought they were smelling. Using their answers, she and her associate Matija Strlič broke various smells into components they put on a “historic book odor wheel,” like the wheels that winemakers use to balance opposing notes and educate consumers—a sort of color wheel for scents. Points around the circle register expected substances such as acetic acid (vinegar) and vanillin; other odors that the library visitors identified ranged from chocolate and burnt coffee to the more abstract “yellow-brown” and “creamy.” The wheel can help to pinpoint and re-create historic aromas, so perhaps someday there will be a heritage library of smells housed side by side with the books.

If your nose is very educated, you might catch subtle variations that mark differences in soil and weather, or a whiff of water or incense you recognize. You might start using words such as furfural and benzaldehyde. Will the precise terms for cellulose breakdown and the chemistry of vanillin enhance your experience of old-book smell? If so, let us steer you to a heavy tome in our alchemical section … Enjoy the vellichor, a new word for the evocative experience of old books massed together.

Even if you reject scientific language, you might try reorganizing your library based on what the smell of each book conjures up for you. There could be new magic in the recombination.


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Susann Cokal is the author of four novels, including the award-winning Kingdom of Little Wounds and her latest, Mermaid Moon, in which a mermaid goes ashore to find her mother, only to fall into the clutches of a witch who wants to harvest her magic. Cokal also writes short fiction and essays about oddities, and she lives in a haunted farmhouse with cats, peacocks, spouse, and unseen beings who bump in the night. “I’ve always suspected there was more to mermaids than the shipwrecks and love stories that lead them to land,” she says. “I’m glad I had the chance to figure them out in these changing times—both in the novel and here among the creatures of Enchanted Living.”