On the joys of sniffing books (and why you shouldn’t do it for too long in public)

Ah, the smell of a good book – those printed pages are much more than just a visual experience, as our man reminds himself with some delving amid shelving…

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From across the bookshop, I’m being given a quizzical look. Actually, it’s more nuanced than that; I’d say it was a blend of quizzical mixed with shades of withering, a generous dollop of good grief and top notes of you do know you’re doing that in public, right?

And if I’m not mistaken, there’s also a touch of well apparently I married this in there too.

Fine, okay. This silent signal tells me that perhaps I’ve been sniffing these endpapers for a bit too long. I gently lower the book from my face, down to regular human reading distance, and pretend to be engrossed in the words or pictures or whatever this thing contains. Something about boats by the look of it. Just be normal.

I can’t help it. Books smell lovely. I’m sure there are all sorts of chemical, biological, and deep-rooted psychological reasons for this, but that’s all beyond me – I’m happy to blithely assume that it all adds up to an indisputable scientific fact. All I know is that when you meet a new book (and after you’ve given the cover a professional/envious glance), it’s only polite to stick your nose in its gutter and enjoy the wonderful stench of ink and print and glue and miscellaneous finishings.

I’ve come to appreciate the importance of smell. Following a head injury a few years ago, my lovely wife (that’s her over there, pretending she doesn’t know me) became anosmic – she completely lost her sense of smell.

The impact of this is less obvious than if you were to lose your hearing or vision, but it has a profound effect on your emotional response to the world around you. Even the most mundane of objects will have something intangible and vital missing, like it’s not entirely that thing anymore.

Thanks to a combination of medication, a regime of retraining the nose/brain with pungent oils, and good old fashioned natural nerve cell recovery, the lovely wife’s sense of smell is slowly returning. As she describes it, it’s like everything is coming back into focus. (It’s absurd how limited our vocabulary for this particular sense is; we have to rely on language borrowed from other senses or simply give up and not bother at all – see the abstract stylings of the fragrance industry for more information.)

Going through all of this with her, it’s made me realise quite how much design is becoming geared to one sense only, to the detriment of others. If the 21st-century gets its way, all books will be written on screen, designed on screen, sold on screen. Our wonderful array of senses will be considered an unnecessary barrier to content delivery. It looks like shiny, it feels like shiny, that’s your lot.

Not in the bookshop though. Here, books are immersed in smells and noises and everything else you don’t get online; more than just text delivery receptacles, they’re part of a more complex ecosystem of sensory experience. I particularly enjoy the cookery book section: cunningly located next to the café, browsing is accompanied by the sounds of clinking crockery and the aroma of toasted teacakes. I’m less enamoured with the comics section, plonked next to the customer loo.

A book is more than just what it looks like. So here I am, in their natural habitat, trying to re-educate myself. It’s about the distinctive sound of different paper stocks as the pages turn; it’s about the satisfyingly ragged touch of a deckle edge; it’s about the smelly smell of the endpapers; it’s about the … hang on, the lovely wife is shooting me a glower.

Do not lick that book.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a freelance designer based in York. See danielgray.com and @gray

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