The Help Desk: That new book smell

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

Whenever people get angry about e-books, they always talk about how much they love the way books smell. Is this real? The only time I’ve ever smelled a book was when it was sitting in a musty basement for too long.

I’ve always had a decent sense of smell, I thought. I can tell when I forgot to put on deodorant in the morning, and I love new car smell. But of all the pleasures that books bring me, smell is not one of them.

Do books have a smell? What do they smell like?

Brian, Shoreline

Dear Brian,

What have you been doing with your life that you've only ever sniffed one book? I bet you've sniffed a handful of horrible things repeatedly in your life but you can't be bothered to pick up a book, close your eyes, and inhale until you run out of lung? I have three books sitting on my desk right now and each smells different: Shawn Vestal's Daredevils smells crisp, like socks fresh from the dryer; Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space smells sour because I spilled old coffee on it; my 20-year-old copy of Flannery O'Connor's The Complete Stories smells like spiders in top hats because it is the book I return to the most often and thus have charged my most trusted spiders to watch over it like those somber circus-themed sentinels that guard the Vatican.

There have been scientific research papers written on how the smell of books change as they age. There are posters devoted to the aroma chemistry of them. Our memory is closely tied to our sense of smell, which is why book lovers cherish the scents that emanate from their favorite works, and which is probably why whenever I smell a spider in a top hat, I now have the urge to hug a wooden-legged woman.

If you're interested in seeing how books smell (har har), ask a handful of friends to bring over a favorite book and a bottle of wine. Cover the labels and blindfold yourself, and your friends can blindly drink and watch in amusement as you sniff out the unique notes of their favorite works.




Dear Cienna,

Enough about us. What have you been reading lately?

Donna, Winslow

Dear Donna,

My summer resolution is to put a dent in the Subaru-sized pile of books that have been gifted to me over the years. The last few books I've read include the above-mentioned Daredevils (for which I owe this fine website a book review), Sally Ride, Gilead, The Carter Family, and Between the World and Me. Currently I'm reading A Little Life, which is quite the depressing beach read! When I need a break, I reread an O'Connor short story because it's been long enough since my last time through The Complete Stories that her descriptions and humor awe and surprise me anew.

Thanks for asking!