Thoughts. . .

Karin Greenberg

Karin Greenberg
Long Island, New York, USA
April 12
freelance writer and full-time mom


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FEBRUARY 23, 2010 12:08PM

The Scent of Books

Rate: 23 Flag

Whenever I inhale the pages of a book one of my kids stares at me with guarded interest.  

"Don't you just love the smell?" I ask, sniffing in deeply as I press the book over my face like an oxygen mask.

Each one of them has tried it, agreeing with me tentatively.

I often wonder, as I do my best to instill a love of reading in my children, if their lives will be shaped as distinctly by books as mine has been.

My first memory of books is surrounded by the haze of early youth.  I am sitting on my mother's lap and she is reading a Curious George story to me.  The man in the yellow hat is friendly and I smile at his bright, sunny color.  I am cozy and warm.  The world around me does not exist.  It is only me and my mother cradled by the olive green couch beneath us, as we join a little monkey and his friend on their adventure.

Kindergarden is the year I learn how to read.  I am standing next to Mrs. Stuchio by the brown shiny table, sounding out Pig in a Jig.  Her pride in my accomplishment excites me, but not as much as the knowledge that I can now pick up a book and read the words on my own.

By first grade, I have figured out that escaping to my room with a book is my favorite thing to do.  Next to my bed is my white formica night table.  The open shelves on the bottom hold my book collection.  I spend hours arranging the titles and making sure the spines line up just so.  When I am satisfied, I pick up a favorite--maybe B is for Betsy or  Sheila the Great-- get comfortable on my bed, and get lost in the story.

For my seventh birthday, my grandparents buy me a hardcover copy of She Was Nice to Mice.  I stroke the silky white book jacket and open up to the back flap, where there are pictures of the 12-year-old author and 13-year-old illustrator.  I pick up the book every day and turn to those photographs, fascinated by how young these professionals are.  I begin to write my own books on colored construction paper.

As my elementary school years pass, the outside world is buffered by my inner world of literature.   I am terrified by the air-raid drills we have at school.  On those days, as I cover my head with my hands and push it against the hard concrete walls of the hallway, listening to the loud sirens, I think of walking down the streets of New York's lower East Side with the girls in One of A Kind Family;  picking berries with the Ingalls family; playing detective with Harriet the Spy; commiserating with any of Judy Blume's characters; or learning about life from Trixie Belden. 

For Chanukah in 1978, my father's cousin gives me a copy of Zlateh the Goat and other Stories, by Isaac Bashevis Singer.  On nights when my parents are fighting, I lock myself in my room and read the short stories over and over again.  I am walking in the snow storm with Aaron and his pet goat.  We find shelter in a haystack as the snow comes down hard.  After three days, we make it back to the village and our family rejoices.

During junior high school my books  are like shiny pieces of candy.  They wait for me in my room while I attend school dances, boy-girl parties, and sleepovers that I pretend to enjoy.  I am asked out by a boy I barely know, who holds my hand and kisses me awkwardly before dropping me off at my Earth science classroom.  I only relax during English class, as Mrs. Ayers reads The Cask of Amontillado aloud in a deliciously dramatic voice.

In high school, I cut Language Arts class often to drive to the pizza place with my friends.  Some of them laugh about how we will write our term papers without reading the book.  I secretly wish I was back in the classroom, listening to what the teacher has to say about Camus' The Stranger.  

It is not until college, where I live in an apartment by myself, that I am free to be alone for hours, devouring Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Byron's Don Juan, Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground, Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, and so many more.  I intern for a small book publisher in D.C. and read manuscript submissions from aspiring writers.    

In graduate school I continue my formal study of literature, thrilled to analyze Shakespeare, discover Caribbean authors like Jamaica Kincaid, and learn the best ways to teach books to high school students.  

It is not until my school years are over, and I end my teaching career to raise a family that I realize how passionately books have shaped who I have become.   Now, when I breathe in the sharp, distinct smell of a book's pages, memories of my life enter my body, mixing with the smells of foreign kitchens, grassy fields, deserted alleyways, 16th century farms, and all the other magical places my mind has travelled to.  They are the smells of literature:  as real to me as any scent that awakens my senses in the present.









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Karin, I love this. It's so evocative--just like the smell of books. A Kindle will never offer that rich senuous experience. Rated for a shared love of real printed and bound books--and the way they smell.
From the first sentence, I thought to myself, "I know exactly what you mean." Those early books stay with you. I once got to tell Betsy Byars how much her book "Summer of the Swans" meant to me - those characters are as vivid to me today as the day I first read the book. If I had a soapbox, I'd stand in the middle of town and shout "read to your kids! it's the best gift you will ever give them!"
Great piece! Brought back some wonderful memories of my own experiences.

Quick story: My boyfriend and I just went thrift store shopping and he bought dozens of old paperbacks. Last night I caught him sniffing every book as he read it. I asked him why he was doing that. His reply, "I judge a book by it's scent."

This is something Eb00ks will never be able to recreate.
I remember getting the Secret Garden as a gift for one birthday. To this day, the memory of that story remains with me. I am never lonely as long as I have a book at my side.
Yes! Also their feel/. This is perfect.
Lovely. If you get a chance, read my post last month about ebooks, which included a comment my daughter made about the smell of books. I think you'll related. r
Magnificent piece. You summarized what I've tried to instill in my students throughout my teaching career. For me, books also evoke personal memories of times and places of where and when I read them, and take me back to nostalgic remembrances of time periods.
Evocative piece. As someone pointed out, Kindles will never offer the same experience.
Susan: Thanks. No matter how many people try to convince me that I'll love the Kindle, I will never give up my books!

Lucy: Of all the things my mother did for me, passing on a love of books is what I'm most grateful for.

Sara: So funny--I love that I'm not the only one who gets "high" from the smell of books.

Donna: The Secret Garden was one of my favorites--thanks for reminding me of it!

At Home: Yes, the grainy feel of the paper. . .ahhhh.

Denise: Thank you. I look forward to reading your post later.

Fusun: Thanks. Isn't it just amazing how books can do that? And the other great thing I used to tell my students is that no matter how many times you read the same book, each time will be a different experience.
MadamRuth: Just missed you. Thanks. It's true--the e-books may be intriguing but they're not for me.
So true and so well-said. I couldn't agree more. rated.
I loved this post so much. You brought this so to life. I am so glad you love books. I do, too. Especially the smell of an old favorite book. R
This was a lovely evocative post. I was in college before I became enamored of I B Singer, but I can imagine the effect his wild flights of fancy and folklore must have had on you at a younger age.

As for the smell of books, some of my old paperbacks from college are forty years old. They have reddish-brown pages and an odor stronger than raw onions, but I don't have the heart to throw them away.
This is wonderful. I absolutely share your passion for books, their textures, their smells. And I can never get rid of them...something my husband just doesn't understand.
I'm with you, I love books. Are ebooks the future? Young people are really hooked into their hand-held gadgets and my teenagers seem to have stopped reading books altogether. Who knows. Great post.
I loved this, Karin. ebooks have yet to replace this.
I also love the smell of books...something so visceral and memory provoking. Oh, and so many in our age group are so attached to these books...the books that I fear will be a thing of the past in the not so distant future. Beautiful post.
I just arrived in Boulder and into my room and opened you up. I am filled with the smell of books and what they mean to me. You write so vividly with all your senses and memories of what the smell alone evokes in you much less their content. I share your enthusiasm for them inside and out. We raised our girls with arts, crafts, skiiing, play-acting, and books books books. We raised them without television -- it was good for all of us. The only time my credit card starts to vibrate and get hot is when I'm in a bookstore -- and then I know our budget is in big trouble. Thanks for this insightful, vivid piece. r
my sentiments exactly, books are treasures, gadgets cannot replace them
I love my books! Well done!
Great post! I thought I was the only one who sniffed books! I have also been known to rub my face on the pages. But only trade paperbacks (lest you think I'm strange). Hard cover and mass paperback books don't have the same texture.

I have a Kindle as well, and I do love it. You can't beat the instant gratification of downloading a new book anywhere. But if I discover a new favorite on my Kindle, I immediately buy a hard copy of it.
i liked this very much. "rated"
I love this so much that I came back to read it again. It was a crappy cold day here in Fly Over State and this warmed my heart again.
I've added some of these to my list, Karin--I appreciate the leads. If you never read "Anne of Green Gables" by Lucy Maud Montgomery, I highly recommend it. I'd be shocked if you don't love it! Get the "Illustrated Junior Library" edition, which contains delightful illustrations.
I heard a Chasidic midrash recently about how the sense of smell is the last sacred sense and that that is the reason why incense was burned to please G-d in the Temple. Our souls were breathed into our nostrils and Aaron's sons were killed by fire entering their nostrils. Adam and Eve employed all the senses except smell regarding their eating of the apple and, hence, the olfactory sense was the only sense that didn't "fall" with Humankind.

I recently ordered a book from an independent seller via Amazon. The book was used but advertised as in good condition. I received it yesterday and it smells bad. I would never bring it into my bed with me. I gave the seller negative feedback. They refunded my money and asked me to remove my feedback. Now I have a free, smelly book. Hmm.
"His weighing of the tome in his hand was as circumspect as if books were sold by the ounce, and his sniffing at is as sentimental as a girl's smelling of a rose."

-from Buchmendel by Stefan Zweig