Tuesday, October 04, 2005

But what if you're allergic to dust?

Were I not blissfully happy in my job as a private school librarian, I might like to make the move back to my first love, the Special Collections Library. I would need to brush up on my Latin. A refresher course in bibliographic notation might also be in order. Why the allure, you might ask, of a stuffy room with old books semi-sealed in protective boxes that must be "checked out" only for use in the immediate area after enduring some byzantine forms and rules?

There are many reasons, but one of them is artfully explained in RICHARD W. ORAM and EDWARD L. BISHOP's article The Sweet Smell of Provenance.

Most people in the book and library world have heard of The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. It is legendary for both the scope of its collection and the means by which it acquired some of its early treasures. Here, Oram and Bishop relate how the smell of a particular book, T.E Lawrence's copy of James Joyce's Ulysses, can tell us about the author, the owner of that copy, and the time in which the owner lived. This copy is especially valuable and coveted, because it is an "association copy," or one that adds to our knowledge of the book and its world by virtue of who owned it. T.E. Lawrence was, of course, the famed "Lawrence of Arabia."

"...Lawrence's copy of Ulysses is remarkable for its smell. The book has been shown to many visitors and students over the years. When it is carefully removed from the shelf and ceremoniously divested of its acid-free box, which helps preserve the volume, even from several inches away you can smell a sweet, somewhat smoky aroma that suffuses every bit of paper and leather. Many people assume it must be the residue of pipe tobacco, perhaps the fruit-scented variety. The aroma is a spur to the imagination, summoning up romantic visions of Lawrence by his fireside, puffing reflectively on a meerschaum, immersed in the drama of Leopold Bloom."

It would be easy to read too much into this. Indeed, the various "experts" who attempt, in an unscientific manner, to divine the source of the aroma wafting from this copy of Ulysses never to come to a definative answer. Pipe smoke, the article points out, was the accepted verdict, until some emminent Joyce fans reminded them that the author did not smoke a pipe. Deteriorated leather? Exhaust from Joyce's motorcycle? Licorice? The experts cannot agree.

Of course, the most telling comment about Ulysses came from Arnold Bennett, who claimed that with this book Joyce "had made novel-reading a form of penal servitude."

Then again, perhaps Bennett had never taken the time to really sniff the book.


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