September 17, 2012 | by Dave Tompkins
The half-mouse—the good half, the half equipped with a smell memory validated by neuroscience, the half mortally known as the half that never saw it coming—shot across the kitchen floor, headed due west with a decent but final glimpse of the front yard. The back half landed somewhere near the sink.
My brother had split the mouse in two with a nine-iron. According to witnesses at the scene, the creature’s separation was cartoonishly neat. I recall thinking this was a flawed method of pest control for someone with no short game to speak of. The linoleum gopher hump that rose from my grandparents’ kitchen floor—a distortion from water damage—did place the moment in a Goony Golf warp. But from my understanding, the murder was more reflex than act of cruelty. It wasn’t like my brother teed up and put the mouse through a window. (I imagine a similar instinct overtaking him the time he allegedly potato-slammed a palmetto bug on the kitchen counter, knocking it out of its exoskeleton, quivering.) He just grabbed the first thing within reach—a legendary chemistry teacher’s nine-iron—and let the mouse have it. Having once hurled a toaster oven at a cockroach, I can relate.
The mouse incident occurred while I read in my grandparent’s front yard, in a gnawed Adirondack chair with a view of Grandfather Mountain rising behind the fortress of hemlock facing west. It was late August. I remember the book (Where Eagles Dare, Alistair MacClean) and its smell (damp rhododendron, doing a vague impression of cut grass). The memory of what happened in the kitchen is strongly associated with this sweet book odor. While the country mouse was being parted from its own rear end in a sinking cottage, I was on the roof of a sky gondola, suspended over mountains somewhere in southern Bavaria, swinging ice axes at Nazis with Eastwood and Burton.
I had rescued the MacClean book from a shuttered boys’ camp that lay beyond the hedges. Run by my grandfather (both feared and loved, he was known as Mr. T), Camp Yonahnoka had closed in 1976, leaving us to sort out its ghosts and bear alerts. Our summers there were spent in vast empty spaces that flung your nose wide open: afternoons running amok through abandoned cabins of chestnut bark, trying to blow each other up on a weedy tennis court, or shooting up football cards at the rifle range (I once brought down Jets fullback John Riggins from twenty yards out). The drive up Route 81 to Linville, North Carolina, anticipated what my mom called “that camp smell,” past the perennial witch in the window at Spake’s Antiques (I was always sure to be awake for the witch; best to keep tabs on her), past the looming psychiatric hospital in Morganton (first patient upon opening in 1883: a physician named Red Pepper), a place that nearly stole our minds before even getting to the mountains, through the carsick curves, and, finally, a gravel road that vanished into the woods. My memory has us always arriving in darkness.
According to my dad, the camp library “wasn’t the main focus” of Yonahnoka—even calling this small cabin full of boys’ adventures and outdoor guides a library was charitable at best. (I am reminded of an old Charles Addams cartoon depicting the publisher of Boys’ Life aiming a slingshot at his own head.) In summer of 1971, Frank Wall, an eleven-year-old bagger of skinks and snakes, entered the Yonahnoka library and snorted a 1958 edition of Roger Conant’s Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America, bound in green cloth. The nose memory of this book would later return when a Twin Spot rattlesnake bite in Portal, Arizona, introduced Wall to the psychedelic properties of Chiricahua Apache shamanism, and in his words, a golden one-way ticket on the Mothership. As he wrote in a recent letter, I was on some serious neurotoxin.
Though the library’s musty conditions didn’t deter campers like Frank Wall, book conservationists may have been horrified by the rampant off-gassing of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—the odors released by decaying paper. In 1995, a team of Austrian researchers separated these smells using gas chromatography, a method they called Dynamic Headspace. Among the “headspace constituents” were carrots, mushrooms, almonds, furfural, vanilla, and nylon. Another popular VOC is formic acid, found in high concentrations in ant bites. I can only dream of waking up one day and having my own book smell like ant venom.
By 2009, researchers of the Heritage Smells project at the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow, were developing a “book-sniffing machine” to determine VOCs and the rate of decay in different environments. Imagining a lab full of people huffing books, I wrote head conservationist Barry Knight for more information: “We do not, perhaps regrettably, have a team of human book-sniffers assessing the perfume of books. The ultimate goal, or dream, was to develop an electronic nose so that the condition of a book could be assessed as it passed by.” (Mechanical-nose buffs are rejoicing over the recent discovery of a twelve-foot bust of Humpty Hump in an Oakland warehouse equipped with “full dressing room inside, with electric elevator that lifts out through the nose.”)
VOCs aside, I wondered if my nose was just catching the binding and spine, indicating that maybe I’ve just been sniffing old glue all these years. Though the smell of old books is often romanticized as some precious fetish (one that I find perfectly normal), for George Orwell it was too closely associated with “paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles.” But crazy people and shit-eating blowflies are the least of a book’s worries. Moths, termites, carpet beetles, and of course woodworms are in on the feast as well. Nearly all of these creatures could be accounted for in the Yonahnoka library’s permanent collection—including the mouse I discovered in a desk drawer, demolishing what little paperwork the library had once required. Mice, with their renown smell memories, are also known to enjoy a good book, so much they’ll just set up shop inside.
Where Eagles Dare was probably relieved to be out of the library and in the front yard, among rocks adorned with lunar-tinted lichen, half-buried in the crabgrass like dinosaur eggs. It was an idyllic setting for reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Pellucidar series, with its telepathic flying lizards and incredibly named Land of Awful Shadow. (ERB even managed to sneak Tarzan down into the Earth’s core.) Or John Christopher’s ecological apocalypse, No Blade of Grass, with a grain shortage that had me rationing Cheerios. Or the Richard Matheson story about a family that literally goes to pieces at dinner, starting with the plop of dad’s nose into a soup bowl. Ken Johnson’s Blue Sunshine—an adaptation of Jeff Liebermann’s lysergic cult horror film—didn’t make sense at Yonahnoka, but it didn’t matter. The book’s acid murder flashbacks smelled like they belonged there. It’s all about location. Half mouse here, half mouse there.
This camp smell would also recur in books that have never had the pleasure of moldering at Yonahnoka. This recently happened with a 1953 edition of Edward Podolsky’s Encyclodpedia of Aberrations. Entries include dream murders, a morbid dread of infinity, hysterical yawning, intellectual malfunctioning, fourteenth-century “epics of dance mania,” and “laughter, fits of.” This catalogue of aberrations took my nose to a place the book itself had never been.
Surprisingly, Dr. Podolsky did not mention the belief that your nose is creating false memories for books that smell like floor detergent. The Cambridge study also found that some books emitted large amounts of limonene (C10 H16), creating a citrus impression that could be traced to lemon-fresh Pine Sol. I suspect traces of limonene were present when my brother was mopping up mouse guts back in 1977. (Hopefully, the creature’s final smell memory was rhododendron, not astringents.) I’d ask my brother, were he still around—the only guy I know who once said he wanted to be reincarnated as cleaning products. But I was too busy doing lines of Where Eagles Dare in the front yard. World War II espionage smelled like Appalachia. That dynamic headspace.
Apparently, fanning yourself for a compulsive whiff of childhood nostalgia only releases more VOCs, thus hastening the disintegration process—as if killing the very memory you're trying to preserve, in the realization that the breeze of book death smells quite good. If that happens to be your thing.
Dave Tompkins’s first book,
Dave Tompkins’s first book,How To Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II To Hip-Hop is now out in paperback. Born in North Carolina, he currently lives in Brooklyn. Audio mixes and more can be found at Howtowreckanicebeach.com.