Xerjoff Magazine

The Smell of Books


A journey inside the thousands facets of the smell of books, magazines and newspapers.

When I am given a book, I always smell it. I open it at a random page and plunge my nose into. I like sniffing paper since I was child. I can still remember the smell of “Fabriano” sheets combined with Giotto crayons during the first days of school. When I get it back – more and more rarely – I am there again, sitting in that third-row desk.

But with books it’s different. There is the smell of paper and there is another smell related to the words written on paper. I love the smell of coated paper of magazines and the one of the cellophane they are wrapped in that makes them even more precious. At the same time I love the smell of newspapers, especially when freshly printed and bought at night, on my way home, in order to be the first one to read all the news at dawn. But the smell I love the most is the intense scent of paper of antique books. From parchments lost in archives to ancient Egyptian papyri sniffed at the Museo Egizio in Turin, through the first copies of great novels. Books saturated with the acrid smell of libraries, with the tears shed by readers and with the places where they waited for two eyes that could grasp their essence. Even a writer like Fabio Geda gets excited about the scent of paper: “Especially old paper, the one bleached by the sun and by the shelves, it’s a smell that, following the most classic Proustian tradition, brings me back to childhood. That pungent smell of ink, dust and wood that is typical, for example, of the paper used for Topolino. When I smell it I find myself in my childhood bedroom in a second, lying on the bed. It’s the smell of idleness and of the absence of worries, of weak times dedicated to reveries”. But what is the real smell that novels hide in their core?

There are no rules, but only freedom – freedom of interpretation, of memory, of suggestion. During this journey, we will also enjoy the company of whom the books are written by. But, in the end, the opinion of readers will count most of all. Even if it may sound like a heresy, in order to cross the world of books’ smell, one should forget Süskind and his “Perfume”. Everyone is invited to read it without prejudice because it is so steeped in smells that freeing your mind is needless, as the author will stick olfactory sensations on it.

The first novel that brought its smell inside me is actually “White Nights” by Fëdor Dostoevskij, in which the perfume of the waters of Neva River pervades everything. The four nights during which love blazes and melts have stuck in their nostrils the smell of those brackish waters that pervaded a romantic and intense Saint Petersburg – though much less sparkling than today. We strongly perceive the fragrance of love lost; it smells of incense, snow and hawthorn. South America has always carried pages with very intense smells – just think of “The House of the Spirits” by Isabel Allende or of “Open Veins of Latin America” by Eduardo Galeano. But also many books from The United States can excite the sense of smell starting by the brain rather than by the senses, as by the words of Nicola Lagioia, director of the Turin International Book Fair and author of the beautiful and powerful novel -“Ferocity”, where the smell enjoys infinite suggestions. “I love the smell you can breathe in the books of William Faulkner, in novels like “The Sound and The Fury” or “Light in August” or “Absalom! Absalom!”. It’s the smell of dust and freshly cut grass that cools down at the tip of the nose at a certain point, perhaps because a river gets closer, like Charles River where Quentin Compson commits suicide in “The Sound and The Fury”.

American literature must be sniffed – just think of authors like Carver and Leavitt. The intimate smell of people offers endless inspirations to those looking for an olfactory sense in novels, but it’s in the pages of Stephen King that you can meet fantastic and one-of-a-kind suggestions. A good example is Annie’s house in “Misery” or the one of the tragic dance in “Carrie”. In “It” I can smell a powerful scent of caramelized apples and cotton candy – but this must be indeed a personal perversion. Nicola Lagioia, that in his top role at the Turin International Book Fair managed to become an extraordinary collector of publishers, booksellers, readers and of course writers, makes an extra step on the olfactory dimensions that trigger between the author and the reader: “Smells are important, both for the reader – in some novels he could navigate through pages with closed eyes only guided by the sense of smell – and for writers that try to render those smells, attempting to evoke them somehow. Straight up, in the end, smells always play a kind of Proustian role: like little time machines, they lead us elsewhere, more often in the past but – unlike Proust and his madeleine – sometimes future is actually in the air in some novels”. Smell means memory and Proust goes back with strength in it. Sometimes this seems to be the only choice. Antonella Boralevi is a master in creating atmospheres of glitz and death in her novels and confirms that: “Novels have a smell because they must bring the reader into another life, another world. Images come first but you are inside the book only when you can really smell it. Proust himself in his “The Fugitive”, the sixth volume of The Recherche, keeps Albertine inside that flat on the Parisian boulevards, in a house that smells of closed windows and dust, offering us an exclusive and sensual description of an ice cream truck. On the contrary, War and Peace is to me a book without odours, while one of the final moments of Doctor Zhivago is so full of power. In that yard where, as a married man, the main character acknowledges that he gave up everything for the marriage, you can smell the scent of despair, of smoke and blood. Those smells give a unique power to the pages of Pasternak”.
 Silvia Avallone in Steel, which is her most intense novel, offers us a fantastic olfactory synthesis between the factory and the sea and was able to dig out some similar feelings from her memories: “In a book the strongest smell is in a Bur edition of The Brothers Karamazov. I used to read it aloud in my bedroom when I lived in Piombino, not far from the sea. It was the time of my adolescence. Every time I hold it in my hands I go back to that room together with that smell of saltiness, of the Tyrrhenian Sea, of seaweeds”.

The smell is a memory and it takes over. I love the smells of The Leopard, from the orange blossoms garden to the endless dance. Alessandro Mari, author of books of great suggestion like “Cronache di Lei” brings us to India to sniff another work of art like “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie: “Going through the pages, I always expect to sniff out lavender and chambeli, but in reality it has the perfume of a bed sheet. To me, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie smells of that fabric”. Slums, buildings, the war and the power: India in this book is so intense. Its smells pervading everything can be also be found in another book. “The Scent of India” by Pier Paolo Pasolini is the travel account of a journey the film director made together with Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia. It’s an immersion with strong insights – also for today’s world – and it begins more or less like this: “These are the first hours of my presence in India and I am not able to dominate the thirsty beast locked inside me, like in a cage”. For those seeking the scent of India and its olfactory suggestions two additional books of great intensity cannot be missed. Gun Island by Amitav Gosh, in which the perfume is evocative like snakes because memories and words spark a journey that originates in Brooklyn but it’s so filled with India – starting from the heart of Calcutta. Dirt, lead, blood, sweat and cardamom belong instead to Shataram by Australian Gregory David Roberts, a powerful novel that not only leads to the heart of Mumbai but also to the heart of the reader. The suggestion of the journey is the easiest to be grabbed. In fact, when we tell about a place only the written word is able to let the spectator/reader discover the scent of a lawn, of the ocean, of a sunset by fixing it in the memory. Images alone can’t do this. And how many perfumes start from a journey or put together essences or spices as a result of one or many travels.

A book is definitely able to let us experience the extraordinary power of the smell of a tear, of nostalgia, of a laugh. And, above all, everyone can assign a preferred scent to a specific emotion, which means reading is an act of freedom. Saramago in “Blindness” also reveals the smell of denied freedom with his narration: concrete, rust and fear. Because fear just like evil has an intense scent and if I had to translate it into a perfume I would use: iron, yuzu and iris. At least my own feeling of fear, not the good one of Stephen King but the acid one of Chuck Palahniuk. In my opinion it has this scent.