Of Smells And Secondhand Books

I’ve constantly marvelled at how everything in life (situations, routine, people, objects) can take on a new meaning when you look at things from a different perspective. Or atleast it makes you consider them in a whole new light, and realise that they might not be what you thought them to be. I had a moment like that, recently.

A few weeks ago, before putting down a book that I had been reading, I felt like smelling it. I don’t know if that sounds weird but it’s quite normal for me. So much so that my sister’s grown used to the sight of me sniffing a book at random moments. Anyway, just as I was savouring the ‘scent’, a thought struck me. What did that smell contain?

I’ve always loved the smell of books, and have a special fascination for that of old and secondhand ones (the book in question was a secondhand copy). But I had never thought of why, or what the smell might be made up of. Until this particular instance, of course. So, there I was, wondering what made a pre-owned book smell so otherworldly.

Perhaps, it’s all the hands that have touched the pages, the thoughts of previous owners and readers…a captivating blend of all the minds that have pored over it. Think of the memories and experiences a book could talk of, but can only exude through its touch and smell! Crazy as it sounds, the idea made books and their smells seem all the more charming to me. I realise I might be letting my imagination run a little too wild, but then, that’s just how I am (if you’re done with my rambling and want an actual, scientific explanation, check this out).

Almost every time I pick up a secondhand book, I wonder about the last person who had/read the book, what they thought about it and why they let go of it. Even bookstores selling used books evoke the same feeling in me. The cramped spaces and shelves overflowing with books make me wonder about the stories hidden under layers of dust. With all those tales, characters and the sheer magic of adventures (all waiting to be read) floating in the air, is it any surprise these places smell so special? Sometimes I fantasise that, maybe, if I listen carefully, I might even hear the soft rustling of books vying for attention — “pick me, hold me, read me”.

This post was partly inspired by the line ‘Try me. Test Me. Taste Me.’ from Chocolat by Joanne Harris, and partly by the secondhand bookstores I so loved and frequented (and now miss like hell!) in Bangalore.  

The Case of the Puzzling ‘Hyperactivity’ of Senses

Recently, I spoke to a close friend of mine. We are really good friends and since we don’t get to talk on a daily basis, we make it a point to catch up with each other whenever we can. During one such conversation, she told me something odd about herself. She said that she could smell death… (Yeah, you read it right!) I began asking her a lot of questions, being the ever-inquisitive person I am. She explained that it wasn’t like she could get a kind of unique smell. But there is a certain smell she can sense, at times; a smell of something familiar (she describes it as something similar to the smell of some plums, weird as that may sound) but one that she has come to associate with death. Whenever she gets this smell (this happens very much at random and quite often, with old people), she hears about a death very soon, sometimes on the same day. This does not extend to unknown people, though. Or maybe she just hasn’t bothered to notice it with strangers. Anyway, she can smell death, very strangely.

Death beckoning...can u SMELL it??

As we continued talking, she told me that she has this weird ability of being able to get the taste of something when she smells it. As in, when she smells a flower, she gets the taste of it too. Might be an odd manifestation of synesthesia, I really don’t know. But I was super-curious, nonetheless. She hadn’t given much importance to it, until recently, when it struck her that it was unusual. Much to my surprise, she told me that her cousin has the same ‘characteristic’ – being able to taste something when she gets the smell. We assumed it must be something passed on to them through the family.

Apart from such unusual ‘abilities’, my friend has an uncanny skill in understanding people after a single conversation, grasping others’ emotions so amazingly well and reading others’ minds. It might not sound very unusual but you need to experience it firsthand to understand the extent of this skill. I have been seeing this for a while now…and that’s why I’m convinced it is nothing like what I have ever seen. It’s really weird, but we realized that only when we put everything together. I felt that, at some level, this must be something like an extraordinary or otherworldly power…though, in a more believable and ‘humane’ manifestation.

I would really like to know a lot more about this – what, how and why? But at this point, I suppose I don’t have the required facilities for it. For the past few days, my mind has been getting flooded by such ‘supernatural’ thoughts. There’s a lot we know, but a hell of a lot more that we don’t. Damn! If only I could get hold of Sherlock Holmes. This would have been, as usual, singularly elementary for him! 🙂