Books Smell

On March 4th the New York Times asked whether books smell the same. The question was inspired by Vladimir Nabokov who wrote:

“Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.”

For many people, the smell of books, in particular, is one of memory’s most powerful messengers, especially as the printed page gives way to the digital.

Over the past year, a Columbia University preservation expert and a curator at the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan have been engaged in an unusual poetic-scientific experiment in the little-visited olfactory wing of history, trying to pin down the powerful connection between smell and memory — in this case, collective memory.

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Jorge Otero-Pailos, director and professor of historic preservation at Columbia University, smells a bookcase in Pierpont Morgan’s study at the Morgan Library & Museum.

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Robert Prather, assistant to Carlos Benaim, master perfumer at International Flavors and Fragrances, preparing fragrance samples
Thousands of molecules will be categorized to determine which of them constitutes the smell profile of objects and surfaces from the Morgan Library.

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