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Book smells, and other attractions
Hobbyists start to love even the side show
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Bob Bridges
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Grant Barrett said
Nothing like that old-book smell. And if you open up an old volume and think you detect notes of vanilla, there’s a good reason. That intoxicating scent is the result of lignin, a chemical compound in plants used for making paper. It has a molecular structure similar to that of vanilla.

C S Lewis pointed out that humans have a tendency to start in some hobby with a love of the thing itself, and learn afterward to love the actions and sensations that come with it.   Readers love to read; but they also begin to love the smell of books, the slight crackle of a new hardback opening for the first time, and the feeling (if you’re old enough) of cutting pages with a knife or letter opener.   (I’m barely old enough; printers these days never leave the pages untrimmed, but it used to be routine.)

Likewise a painter may start with a love of portraying some scene, but he learns to love the smell of the paint, the sound of stretching canvas, the feel of a knife against the palette.     A cabinet maker tends to like the smell of fresh-cut wood and the feel of a sharp saw in properly cured rosewood.   And so on.

Lewis’ point at the time was that there’s a danger in letting this go so far that one “forgets one’s first love”, so to speak.   If you start as a lover of reading, but your interest in collecting fine books and first editions leads you on until you’ve forgotten to read and care only for the collecting, then you’ve lost something valuable.   But he would add (and in any case I believe) that there’s nothing but an innocent good in the pleasures themselves.

It’s oft bemoaned that reading on-line deprives us of these pleasures.   I imagine, though, that other pleasures will arise to take their place.   I’m not very worried about it.

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Cutting pages with a knife or letter opener? Can it possibly be what I am guessing: the pages came as a large sheet folded up multiple times; you cut along the folds to separate the pages. What a technology!

Bob Bridges
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I was hoping someone else would reply more authoritatively, RobertB, but yes, that’s exactly what I’m thinking.   I used to find old books in my grandparents’ attics (what a treasure trove was there!), and in them there’d the the occasional page that still had to be cut.   My impression at the time was that it just a miss from the publisher, that they would trim the books before shipping them but sometimes the cutter missed a bit and the reader would have to do a few pages himself.   But now I’m inclined to believe that even farther back, maybe they didn’t cut them at all.   I’m not sure about that, though.

And remember all those old books you’ve seen with really ragged page edges?   I’ll bet someone cut them manually.

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