My name is Eric Wark and I am a booksniffer.
It is a simple and habitual pleasure, almost unconscious and unthinking, to pause from reading and breathe in deeply the smell of the book. Mind you, not so unconscious that you would catch me doing it on the train – that would just be odd. And socially unacceptable, albeit it a relatively mild taboo. It came to mind the other day when, whilst tucking in one of the kids, I was given a book to smell by my daughter. It was a good one, with that comforting depth of smell that comes from paper, glue and ink, perhaps with the faint memory of the tree that once grew. Before long we were working our way along her bookshelf, conducting a survey.
Much arguing led to not much by way of conclusion, other than to say that non-glossy paper beats glossy paper. Usually. Having said that, the glues of the glossy papered books can give a more immediate pleasure than something more subtle. Like the fizz and instant hit of a pint of cold lager on a hot day, over the richer quality of a bitter and hoppy beer.
Either way, I opened one of her books, breathed in and, to my astonishment, found myself in St Andrews in 1982, during the Easter holidays. I’m not sure exactly which book it reminded me of, although I can remember the books I was reading at the time. One was a book of whales and dolphins, which I was reading (and drawing pictures from) for a primary school project. The other, which I bought that week on a day when the rain poured relentlessly, was the Observer’s Book of Football, edited by Albert Sewell. It had a picture of Kevin Keegan on the front cover. I can even remember the paper bag I carried it home in.
This was surprising – book smells rarely have such direct associations. The smell of a book, for me, evokes something reassuring but almost never an actual specific book. In fact, I can think of only one other book that I can identify by smell, and that is a bit of a cheat – my copy of The Tempest still has a faint whiff of the greasepaint from a school production and can carry me away to a time so intense and vivid in my memory that it is almost impossible to believe that thirty years have passed. But, in the context of booksniffing, I’m not sure it really counts, given the alien agent. So the immediacy of this memory was something altogether new.
I’m sniffing books as I write this, in the spirit of research, and keep getting distracted from the task in hand. Each sniff takes me on a different journey, none of them specific, but all of them giving vague notions of a better world. I have no doubt that the glues and inks play their part but I am quite certain that the comfort comes from the paper itself. Let’s face it, the greatest joy of fish and chips (even in my mid forties, fish and chips feels like the best treat of all) is the smell of the warm paper that it is wrapped in. I always decline the plastic bag, so that I can walk home, inhaling as I go. Hot fat and sweet batter, distilled through the paper filter. Oh, look where booksniffing is taking us! Food, drink, lost youth! All from the deep rich organic smell of paper – and before we have even read a word!
The hour is late, so I am going to resist the urge to go rummaging in the loft for my copy of the Observer’s Book of Football, but I will dig it out tomorrow, and I will breathe in the contents slowly and luxuriously. And before I hit the sack tonight I will reach over for The Tempest, which is on the shelf by the bed, and carefully smell its pages, trying to distinguish the intrinsic smell of the paper from the sweetness of the greasepaint, from the teenage pheromones, from the passing decades and from the memories that remain very much current and alive.