Friday, November 25, 2011

Report from the Fleeting Realm

As I was shelving books one day in the UBC a customer walked up to me and exclaimed: "I just LOVE the smell down here!" Admittedly, I've worked down here for a while and am honestly not so sure I can smell the UBC anymore. But it probably changes a lot, anyway. We get lots of new (used) books every week and plenty go out, too. I imagine the cumulative scent of aged paper, a little bit of dust--all the rooms and people that these books have sat with over the years--combines into one intoxicating smell. The smell of escape, pleasure and scholarship. It's not an entirely uncommon remark for a bookseller to receive from a customer: "I just love how books smell." I've even caught peeks of more than a few browsers sneaking a whiff inside an open book, but I'd never tell.

I have the same sort of associations. Sometimes the smell of one book will remind me of another, just like reading a really great description fills my brain with a smell memory. The brain is so wacky that way. One of my favorite books in the world is Perfume by Patrick Süskind. It's pretty gross. The main character Grenouille is born in a fish market next to a cemetery in 18th century Paris on a hot July day. Basically, the smelliest place on the smelliest day ever. After he's born, his skin makes no smell but his own sense of smell is superhuman. He can smell things at a distance, he can smell things concealed beneath wood, he can smell things humans usually can't. He can smell a certain je ne sais quoi on a young woman one night and becomes obsessed with the smell. Capturing her essence dominates his life and he becomes a journeyman perfumer in order to attempt it.

The narrator makes mention that all Grenouille's doings belong to the "fleeting realm of scent," and it's kind of crazy to think about how smell is so ephemeral, but our memories of scents and their immediate impressions are almost inescapable. I had a friend who had anosmia (no sense of smell) and every once in a while he would recall one of the two things he smelled before he lost his sense entirely: blue kool-aid. We were walking together one day and randomly he said, "does this tree smell like blue kool-aid?" I took a whiff to humor him, but alas it just smelled like cedar. "Darn, I can smell it so strongly. I could swear I was smelling it for real."

In Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses, she spends a bit of time talking about literary entanglements with scent: Proust, Dickens, Lady Murasaki. It's a sense that can be overlooked in writing, but when it's given its full due, it can really be so evocative. I have only to read the world lavender, or vanilla or citrus and immediately my brain is reminding me what those things smell like. When authors throw scents into a book it immediately draws me in. I'm alert, attentive and my mind is exactly where they might want me: disgusted and near-wretching in the fish market or peacefully reclining in a pleasant garden. But sense all this for yourself! Stop by and smell our wares, and check out one of the many books that recall this fleeting realm.


As the Crowe Flies and Reads said...

nice post--there aren't enough olfactory blog posts out there, are there?

Anonymous said...

There really aren't, I'm happy to help! Thanks for reading!