I used to work at an online bookstore. I didn’t work online, sadly, but I instead spent the majority of my hours logging time at a big warehouse full of bookselves. I would collect huge stacks of used books and run each book’s ISBN through a computer program that would determine if the book was worth listing on the site. It was repetative, meanial work, but I didn’t mind it, both because I was paid well and because books were involved.
Still, data entry is boring. To pass the time, I settled on a few entertaining diversions. The most interesting of them: book sniffing.
I didn’t have a lot of time to read the books that I scanned: processing information from the book took me more time than it took a computer program, and the size of my bonus depended on my need for book-scanning speed. But a quick whiff of each book’s unique paper-and-glue-combo was a rewarding and suitably speedy pastime. I could crack up a book, sniff it, and toss it aside in the two seconds it took the program to locate all the online info about the book – it’s name, author, publisher, and date of printing.
Since I also checked all the information about the book to verify the program’s opinion, I was able to assign information to each book smell that my nose registered. And since I did this quickly, at speeds of about a book every ten seconds, I inventoried each book’s info/smell relationship on a subconscious level.
The subconcious, for the unaware, has amazing and bizarre powers of indentification bordering on the supernatural. Case in point: Chicken sexing, a job in which one must indentify the sex of a chick with a quick glance at it’s rear. The male and female chicken are nearly indistinguishable at birth, appearently, and many of the top chicken sexers in the business will, according to the academically-titled paper The Art of Chicken Sexing, admit that “in many cases they have no idea how they make their decisions.” There’s a process, sure, but it’s so deeply internalized that it can’t be imperically explained. Chicken sexers must subconsciously learn the trick , often with a two-year stay at the Zen-Nippon Chick Sexing School of central Japan.
The Chicken Sexing paper goes into much more detail, and explains a similar situation among British aircraft spotters during WWII: the spotters could tell enemy aircraft from their own, but didn’t know how they were able to. New spotters were trained though trial and error, with the experts passing their knowledge on to the new, equally-clueless recruits.
My nose for old books was gained, I argue, through a similar process. I would smell a book, then check the information. The date of printing was most important: if the costumers cared what version they got, it was because they were either consumers who wanted the latest copy or collectors who wanted the oldest copy. (Each group grew shocked and upset when mistaken for the other.) As a result, my subconcious grew to learn what smell meant which date.
I spent about a year at the bookstore. Today, if I smell a book, I can name the decade it was printed it based off the paper, ink, and glue. It’s a great party trick, although, surprisingly, book sniffing has yet to come up in my party conversations.
I am wrong often, to be honest, but I can beat pure guesswork even if by a narrow margin. The fact that there are few books currently circulating which are older than the 1920s or ’30s helps quite a bit, since it leaves me only eight or nine possible decades to choose from. And when I’m off, it’s often just by five or ten years. The late forties are very similar to the entirity of the fifties, for instance. I can only assume that the fifties were not a time of great evolution in book printing.
With only a year to practice, it’s no wonder I’m not a genius at it. If I had a few more years, I might be able to pick out the book publisher or location of the papermill that produced it. I could be a Sherlock Holmes of the book world, solving all cases that hinge on being able to smell a book, but not being able to flip to it’s copyright page. As it is, I can’t really help anyone, as I can’t even explain my powers very well.
There are a few general, common-sensical words of wisdom, though, and I’ll leave any up-and-coming book sniffers with them:
~Older books smell more deteriated, while newer ones smell crisper.
~Academically published books and commerically published ones smell differently. I assume the academic world can afford higher quality paper due to the smaller audience.
~Each decade of the twentith century smells slightly different. There aren’t any sharp distinctions, just a spectrum, but it you smell a commercially-published book from the middle of each decade, you should have a good yardstick.
~The cheap book serieses—Choose Your Own Adventure, Goosebumps—all tend to have their own smell, separate from the smell of other books from that decade. CYOA books from the eighties tend to smell like normal books from the sixties, but more acrid, while the ninties’ CYOA and Goosebumps books have a unique cheap ninties smell. (As an aside, cheap books in the earlier decades of the 1900’s were either non-existent, have all disappeared, or, most likely, composed all books back then. They all smell the same.)
~The best book smell is the sixties. I may be biased on this one, as I loved reading cheap Tarzan and Zorro books from the sixties as a kid, but in my opinion, it’s the decade with the quinessential ‘old-book’ smell.