The Scent of Old Books

There’s nothing in the world like the smell of a library filled with old books. It’s a scent our children may never know. When Rakhal first took me to the library at St. Anthony’s College, I almost cried, it brought back so many memories. Row after row of books. Musty. Dusty. Slightly mildewed. A whiff of decay. 


Modern libraries have almost no smell at all, or if they do it’s sterile, metallic. And all the old books? They’re being taken away by the truckload and burned or dumped.


Old books have soul. They carry memories, the imprints of all the hands that have thumbed through them. A kind of communion occurs between the reader and author. Old books are the closest we’ll ever get to talking with the dead. You can have a relationship with a book, a real book, that you can never have with a Kindle–and I love my Kindle, but it’s only a tool for reading; it doesn’t involve the whole sensory, tactile experience of holding a book. 


So many good memories are tied up with libraries. As a teenager, I sometimes cut school and hitch-hiked to the downtown library in Canton, Ohio. It was great library, several floors packed with books. I remember sitting on the floor between the rows reading Thomas Hardy, C.S. Lewis, Virginia Wolff–influences from my mother, probably, who loved British writers. 


In my twenties I also haunted libraries.The man I traveled with back then, zigzagging  in a crazy pattern across the U.S. and Canada, had a tendency to go berserk every now and then, but my instincts are good. I knew how to run and often I ran to a library–the last place in the world he would have ever thought to look for me. And, there I escaped, at least for a while, the insanity. Books have probably saved my life.


The library at St. Anthony’s is in the basement of the Media building. The light is muted, the way a good library should be, and the shelves are filled with books. Books in Hindi, English, Urdu, Bengali, and Khasi. One corner is piled with ancient journals. I love to leaf through them, the writing like the thumbprints of fairies. Sometimes I choose a book because of the way it looks. I like ones with faded cardboard covers, the dust jackets long gone, the pages yellowing. Today I picked one up that’s  only been checked out five times since 1981, and for several hours I lost myself in the Amazon, far from India, far from the U.S., in a small plane gliding over the jungle.