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Biomedicine in museums

Things that smell — smelly books

By December 11, 2007No Comments

One thing is the haptic qualities of medical things. Another the olfactory. Many medical things smell, some are smelly. Yet another dimension of the curatorial life we ought to pay more attention to!

I was reminded of the olfactory dimension this morning when I glanced through the last batch of posts from the H-SCI-MED-TECH-list. One of the posts, from medical historian Margaret DeLacy, describes “a very strange and unexpected problem” with her library copy of Geoffrey Cantor’s otherwise excellent book Quakers, Jews and Science (Oxford UP, 2005): “The book stinks. Literally! A very strong chemical smell wafts from the pages when you open the covers”.

Margaret borrowed another copy from the University of Wyoming (American academics can enjoy an excellent interlibrary loan system!), but the problem remained: “it smells equally strange”.

It makes it nearly impossible to read the book. I can’t figure out whether this resulted from too much bleach being used on the paper or too much fumigation with pesticides when the book was in the Oxford University Press warehouse, but the book smells just like the pesticide shelves of our local garden store. Is an aberration of my own or has anyone else ever experienced this problem? Is it limited to this one edition of this one book? Has anyone noticed a problem with other OUP books from that year? Any suggestions? Electronic versions don’t seem to be available for this title. Amazon lists a paperback ed. but evidently it was never issued as no copies seem to be available.

Margaret has had an unusually bad experience indeed. But the phenomenon of smelly books is not that uncommon. Books always smell, of course, more or less, but in many cases they do so quite distinctly. I’ve also experienced books that emanated such strong odours that I felt it disturbed the pleasure of reading.

Vice versa, some books just smell so good! One of my best book smelling experiences is the 1960s multi-volume edition of Josef Stalin’s Collected Works from Foreign Languages Press in Beijing. You can say many bad things about the literary and political qualities of the ideas expressed in these collection of (mainly) talks — but not about the olfactory quality of the binding! I sometimes wonder if the Chinese publishers deliberately used a specially designed fragrance to attract readers to the old dictator’s wicked ideas. 

So the smell of books is one of the qualities of their presence as things. Wonder if book historians pay attention to this? Or maybe the olfactory qualities of books wane over the years so that it doesn’t really matter for a book historian. Today, Stalin’s Collected Works may be less attractive than they were in the early 1970s. And Cantor’s study of how the British Quakers and Anglo-Jewish community engaged with science in the 17th through 19th centuries may loose it’s pesticide odour over time.

(Added 13 Dec.: The H-SCI-MED-TECH list is flooded with good suggestions for solving Margaret DeLazy’s problem: the most frequent one is to use a ‘book deodorizer’. Never heard of this basic intellectual support product before — but one learns something every day 🙂

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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