Smell the Yellow Pages

Apr 30, 2010
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The creased, stained and musky leaves of an old book are great for running your fingers through – and burying your nose in.



The secrets of a book can lie in the various perfumes it has gathered across the years.

Photo credit: Clarissa Tan


Amid the lipsticks, eyebrow pencils, coins, paperclips, credit cards, pieces of folded paper, pencils, pens, erasers and other such non-essential items crowding a woman's trendy tote bag, mine always has a book beckoning to be touched, with pages standing at attention longing to be flipped and rows of type waiting to be given life by a reader.

But my books – often procured from a used bookstore – yellowing, with sickly dark spots coasting at the three edges of bound sheets formed from cellulose wood fibres, often trigger a quirky habit. I smell them – and get a sense of strange relief from each whiff of that musky scent with a hint of faint vanilla trapped in the soul of the pages, as if to cast a spell over me to delve into the secrets of the book.

The uninitiated might consider this a nasty habit, because the resulting yellowish paper and its musky odour are a result of the accumulation of dirt, the interaction with dust and other atmospheric pollutants, and deterioration caused by long-term exposure to light and humidity. But science doesn’t explain how an orgiastic commingling of various bacteria and chemical compounds with the natural environment could ultimately produce a mystical scent that lingers on in the memories of a smell cabinet, to be reawakened only with every fresh tickle of yellowing paper on one’s nose. No, only true romantics can understand this evocative fetish – and the desire of every book lover to cruise by the shelves of an old bookstore, taking in the mundane histories of each book guarded by its neighbour and secure in its house. That is, until it is given a new home and new friends.

It is our conviction as human beings, with hubris almost as persistent and annoying as a revolting nagging witch, that we own the things that coexist in our house, in the spaces we occupy and in the universe. But the average book, if it hasn’t met with tragedy, neglect or disaster, lives longer than the average man or woman; and it is an independent object determined to hold on to the secrets for one willing to make the effort to read it. Its historical musk of yellow is a reminder of the followers who have sought the secrets within the pages and a witness to the interaction of hands that have been tempted by the promise of the author. It is a capsule that enables us to share in the lives of those who have lived their days and nights with the book in close proximity, absorbing their pain, frustrations, anger, happiness, peace, fatigue as they make their way through the complex journey of living.

Psychic remembrances often occur between one generation and another; like the children of the survivors of the Holocaust, who often carry the remnants of fear, sorrow, suspicion and solitude that they witness in lifelong interactions or non-interactions with their parents, the book, too, is a survivor of the secrets of its predecessors. I like to believe that its flavour of yellowed musk, of something that weeps of several pasts, yet with the undercurrent of sweet vanilla, is a taste of life – like a stream that continues to flow down its intended path, picking up the bittersweet romances, regret, delights and heartaches along the way. The book is a part of us that refuses to be constrained by the boundaries of life and death, of right and wrong, of man and woman, of young and old – the books live on despite our mediocre existence. And one needs only soak in the coat of musk in its yellowed archives of human anecdotes to get a glimpse into the possibilities of life.


Mila Han blogs about movies, poetry and sex at Girl With a Big Mouth.