What does nostalgia smell like? | Culture

Old books in a library.
Old books in a library. James Paterson – Staff (RAM0217 (Future via Getty Images)

It is not possible to check it except that one buys it, but Old Books, the fragrance created by the British perfumer Azzi Glasser, supposedly smells of old books, as well as the memory of “taking one in the attic of the grandmother and seeing how it falls apart”; its manufacturer describes it as a “scent of creative, intelligent and unique character and style” without making it clear what a “smart” scent would be or why the smell of powder might seem “creative” to us. Glasser had created perfumes for Jude Law, Kylie Minogue, and Johnny Depp, some hotels and a restaurant in Dubai, before pursuing only seemingly more serious matters: today, Bella Freud, the firm of which she is a partner alongside the daughter of the painter Lucian Freud, sells his perfumes with names like Psychoanalysis, I love you Jane [Birkin] Y Ginsberg is God; the latter, a tribute to the author of the poem Howl with “notes of incense, absinthe and leather.”

“The litany of things the smell of a book resembles suggests a peaceful civility. Well planed wooden furniture. Leather bookmarks. Freshly opened tobacco cans. […] Tea. Pressed flowers. Radiator heating on. Candles and spent matches. Intact dust, with its suggestion of perfect stillness and happy lengthening of reading hours, ”says Jude Stewart. In his most recent book, Revelations in Air (Penguin, 2021), the American dedicates a chapter to explain why we are attracted to the smell of old books, but her conclusion may seem disappointing: old books, she says, smell of the “slow chemical decomposition” of their elements, in particularly that of a plant polymer called lignin. “In trees, the lignin binds the cellulose fibers together and gives the wood additional strength, which would seem like a desirable quality for bookbinding.” But lignin is also “prone to wild and destructive decomposition. When it oxidizes, it decomposes into acids that corrode the cellulose of the paper, turn the yellow pages and give off volatile organic compounds ”.

“The smell of books blends with that of the rooms and the readers who usually occupy them [y] it reflects the environment in which they have resided for a long time ”, says the author: she tells us“ if these rooms are especially humid, they are full of smoke, they are bright or they are not air-conditioned. If they are emblematic ”, like those of a historical library or reading room, that smell can be considered a“ tangible ”part of the“ heritage of the place ”. From the 1970s, however, the smell of books began to change thanks to the introduction of acid-free paper and the use of sodium hydroxide or “caustic soda”, the bleaching of the paper with hydrogen peroxide and the use of new inks and adhesives; despite this, still, “as soon as it is made, a book begins to fall apart.” And that degradation is “a chemical process that we can smell,” he says.

Naturally, Old Books It is not the only fragrance created for lovers of old books, who can also turn to perfumes such as Whispers in the Library (notes of pepper, benzoin, vanilla and cedar), Powell’s By Powell’s (wood, violet and “biblichor” (smell of an old book)), Paper Passion, In The Library (“Russian and Moroccan bindings in leather, worn fabrics and a touch of polished wood”, in the words of its creator, the perfumer Christopher Brosius) or Dead Writers (black tea, musk and tobacco, all scents that are often considered “masculine”, in a singularly distorted view of the contribution of women to literature). Created by the American company Sweet Apothecary, Dead Writers includes perfumes dedicated to Jack Kerouac (coffee and opium), Jane Austen and the poem by Edgar Allen Poe Lenore (incense and dried roses).

A used book store on the banks of the Seine, Paris, in 1928.
A used book store on the banks of the Seine, Paris, in 1928.Keystone-France (Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

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The apparent loss of materiality of the contemporary world as a result of the digitization of products and services, electronic commerce and the experience of confinement are fostering a nostalgia for objects, the most recent example of which is The voice of things (Carena, 2021), a book of chronicles by Latin American authors edited by Roberto Herrscher in which a flashlight, a cardboard box, a surgical mask, the weapons improvised by the prisoners of a jail or a chip speak of their owners and of the often tragic circumstances they have experienced. The emergence of electronic devices and the online press are responsible for giving us the impression that we have lost something and we associate that something with the smell of old books; But it is not the decomposition of printed matter that seems to attract us, but something deeper and perhaps not entirely expressible: on the one hand, the desire that books grow old with us and accompany us throughout our lives instead of adhere to the logic of novelty and programmed obsolescence that presides over its current production; on the other hand, the nostalgia for the “peaceful civility” of which Stewart speaks, a time never fully realized in which there would have been no emergencies but a vast expanse of time cleared of worries that stretched out before the people and was called the future. .

The contemporary world has not really lost materiality, and most of the objects we buy and the services we consume have a story that can be told and is often heartbreaking; but we feel a premature longing for a material world of discrete and predictable stimuli, and that longing seems to reside in the smell of old books more than in any other. As the Argentine Federico Kukso argues in Odorama, cultural history of smell (Debate, 2019), “although many want to believe that they are temporary, meager, perishable, smells and their sources leave direct and mediated traces” in personal and collective memory, they are part of “narratives that seek to make sense of the world”, especially at times when it seems to be lacking.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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