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Koos Kombuis

On the scent of good literature

2012-10-18 09:40
Don't you just love the smell of a good book?

To be able to crawl under the covers at night after a hard day at work, switch on the bedside lamp, and pick up that novel you have never had time to read, crack it open on the first page, and… smell it.

Yes. Physically sticking your face into the pages and smelling the paper. I know it sounds obscene, but that is what I do. And I'm not the only one with this nonsensical habit. At least three of my close friends have confided to me – in private conversations – that they also smell books before reading them.

Of course, I won't disclose the names of these good friends, as the smelling of books is, after all, a rather intimate affair.

Admitting that you are addicted to the scent of good literature is perhaps not quite as embarrassing as admitting that you pick your nose in rush hour traffic or sing the choruses of Justin Bieber songs while you shower, but it obviously isn't something you just want everyone to know about.

In fact, for me to come out of the closet and admit, publicly, in this column, that I stick my heads into books – other people's books, not just books written by myself – and sniff the contents, is quite brave.

By admitting this addiction – because, let's face it, it is an addiction – I am, by default, admitting a lot of other things about myself. I am admitting my prejudice against Kindle. I am lifting the covers for the whole world to see at least one of my bedside manners. I am also revealing a rather shocking lack of conscience at the amount of trees being felled every year in order to sustain the book-printing industry.

Why read ordinary paper books, some of you might say, if you can peruse them on your iPad, listen to them in your car, or simply wait for the film version? And, if you DO read books, why on earth stick your nose into them to smell them as well?

Well, I LIKE the smell of good books. I can smell a good book right away, in fact. There is a huge difference between the smell of an old copy of, say, Alice in Wonderland, than, for instance, Joost van der Westhuizen's life story.

The classic old story books evoke the faraway landscapes of dream and mystery, castles surrounded by freshly mown lawns, sword-fights, shipwrecks and the dusty corners of glorious mansions, whereas Joost's biography just smells like the airport where I bought it. No wonder I never finished it. There was probably nothing wrong with the story, but it just never smelt right, and I cannot establish a relationship with a book that doesn't smell right.

Books don't have to be old to have an intriguing smell, though. I have a brand new copy of The Long Earth, written by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter and published only months ago, which has a marvellously leafy, autumnish kind of smell to it.

Take a good sniff at Lauren Beukes's paperback Zoo City, and you pick up a subtle but interesting mixture of city streets, sewage and foreigners' sweat. Jane Raphaely's lovely autobiography, Unedited, smells like a brand-new, fresh-off-the-press glossy magazine filled with full-page arty photographs of stylish ladies in beautiful outfits; the pages simply OOZE confidence, glamour and charm.

And then there is the bewildering array of smells in Marian Keyes's latest novel, The Mystery of Mercy Close – was it my imagination, or were there cupcakes in there somewhere, laced with just a hint of prescribed anti-depressants?

For someone reason, printed books seem to take on the character of the contents they carry. I know this is a scientifically inexplicable phenomenon – as inexplicable as the fact that dogs start to resemble their owners after a few years (my slightly overweight, ageing, heavy-breathing, saliva-dripping Boxer being one of the rare exceptions to this rule)  – but it is nevertheless true.

I know it is true, because I am a book-smeller, and when it comes to picking a good read, my nose has never let me down.

How about YOU? Have you sniffed out any good stories lately?

E-mail your book-sniffing confessions to and you could be published! (Feel free to use a pen name)

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