At some point when I was in high school (in the 1950’s) and I was set upon becoming a playwright, I learned of a new three volume anthology of great plays. They were edited (and commented upon) by John Gassner, an important drama critic of the time. The volumes contained many plays, from the ancient Greeks to modern works. The set was expensive, something like twenty-five dollars (about two hundred dollars in today’s world) I have no idea where I got the money (I had various odd jobs in those days) but I ordered the books, and I got them.
As for the texts, they met my expectations, but there was something else they contained that was surprising and wonderful. The volumes had a delightful smell! I had (nor have) no idea why they had this alluring smell. Was it the paper? The binding glue? Was it something in the ink with which the plays were printed? No idea.
I not only enjoyed reading the books, but I enjoyed smelling them too.
This came to mind when I recently purchased an old book from some online dealer. Some research I was doing. When I opened the book, I was immediately taken by the book’s smell, which I identified as “old-book smell.” It made me recall those volumes of plays.
There is a certain sweet, musty-dusty aroma given off by old books which I identify with pure pleasure. Perhaps it comes from my happy wanderings through used book stores along “Book Row” on lower Fourth Avenue in New York City when I was young. Or the sweet smell of libraries. Or my own overstuffed rooms—stuffed with books—over the years. I suspect my friend Bob Topp, who runs the marvelous Hermitage Bookshop in Denver, knows exactly what I’m writing about. I wonder if he can tell the vintage of a book merely by its smell.
All this is a reminder, I think, that a book is not just content. At its best, a book is an art object, which fills the senses, the mind, the touch, the eyes, and for me, the nose, too.
As for those volumes of plays—after more than fifty years—I still have them. A little faded perhaps—but still a pleasure—in every sense of the word.