Spin the Historic Book Odor Wheel, and Other News


On the Shelf

For a book that reeks of pipe tobacco, try smoking a pipe into your book.


  • Take a whiff of a musty old book—isn’t that nice? We all have our favorites. Me, I like the ones that smell like my granddad’s scalp just after a hot-oil treatment, or like a saucepan of raw sheep’s milk left out under the hot noonday sun. As Claire Armitstead writes, scientists are learning more and more about old-book smell every day: “In a paper published this week in the journal Heritage Science, Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič describe how they analyzed samples from an old book, picked up in a second-hand shop, and developed a ‘historic book odor wheel, which connects identifiable chemicals with people’s reactions to them. Using fibers from the novel, they produced an ‘extract of historic book,’ which was presented to seventy-nine visitors to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Chocolate, cocoa, or chocolatey were the most frequent words used to describe the smell of a copy of French writer Panait Istrati’s 1928 novel Les chardons du Baragan, followed by coffee, old, wood, and burnt … The researchers believe the historic book odor wheel could become a useful diagnostic tool for conservators across a wide range of areas, helping them to assess the condition of objects through their olfactory profile.”
  • There’s only one thing that smells better than an old book, and that’s a genuine human-hair wig. Very few artisanal wigmakers survive these days. One of them, as Annie Correal reports, lives in Staten Island: “Nicholas Piazza keeps six hundred pounds of hair in his Staten Island garage. He stores it in plastic bins and cardboard boxes, opposite the fishing supplies. ‘Got grays, got browns, got blonds,’ he said. ‘Got everything.’ Inside one bin, shiny brown bundles nestled around one another like snakes. He picked two thick braids and lifted them from the bin. Uncoiled, they were three feet long and nearly reached the ground. ‘This is all Russian hair cut right off people’s heads,’ Mr. Piazza said … Mr. Piazza is one of the last Old World wigmakers making wigs for the public in the city, men and women trained mostly by Italian and Jewish immigrants in the centuries-old trade of hand-tying wigs, a fussy affair that on the patience spectrum falls somewhere between tailoring a jacket and counting the stars.”

  • Jenny Uglow on a new exhibition of paintings by the late Howard Hodgkin, whose talent for figuration meant that, in an art world besotted with abstraction, he found fame only late in his career: “It always feels wrong to scatter words around Howard Hodgkin’s paintings. Their tactile richness should just burn into eyes and minds, leaving a trace behind the eyelids, a memory to which we can return. Their energy is enormous, their beauty intense. Yet ‘words’ are eerily present in these paintings: conversations, jokes, arguments, and endearments. In a way, Hodgkin is a narrative artist … The figurative swerves into the abstract, a complex language of encounters, or in Hodgkin’s words, ‘emotional situations.’ Titles often tease: Talking about Art (1975), for example, recalls conversations with the artist Peter Kinley, where ‘the art world’ was stoutly avoided. And the pictures tease too, with in-jokes, like the enveloping talk of the collector Ted Powers, a huge green egg swelling across the firm lines of Mr and Mrs E.J.P. (1969–1973).”
  • It’s voguish for writers to hate Trump, but Siddhartha Deb reminds us that the American state has always deserved writerly disgust—why is it coming so late? “There should be some talk about why so many American writers and artists as well as the organizations close to them are critical of Trump but not of the American state, or even of America itself. Why do the arguments offered by PEN America and its allies in the liberal media counter the Republican disdain—not just for the arts, but for compassion, for dignity, for life itself—with exhortations that remind one of what American art has done for American war? … The idealized image of the American writer remains that of the individual uncontaminated by pressure from state or society, their support for wars an entirely voluntary matter, their writing as well as their thinking formed in the crucible of a free society and a free market that rewards talent and independent thinking and demands no conformity in return. This fiction of independence and innocence survives whatever insidious nexus between state and writer the historical record might offer.”
  • Speaking of good things to hate: straight white guys are always a safe bet. The punk band Pissed Jeans, I’ve argued, has figured this out; on their new album, their front man, Matt Korvette, attempts an excoriation of his own white male privilege: “At his most sardonic, Korvette impresses as someone who enjoys rubbing a taut balloon to annoy bystanders with the sound it makes. I say this as an endorsement: punk would be nothing without its gadflies and instigators. Plus, in Why Love Now he has a worthy target in his crosshairs, a subspecies of anhedonic alt-bro crowding the sidewalks of ‘up-and-coming’ neighborhoods. Such a man uses a rash of opinions to hide a deeper vacancy—he’s bereft of preference, incapable of summoning the conviction to like or dislike something. Intimacy, for him, is an accidental by-product of sex, neither desirable nor objectionable. He’s so immured in his privilege that he can’t recognize the shape it’s given his life, though he’d claim he does. And in balancing his insatiable id with his fragile ego he sees no conflict in calling himself a feminist while accosting his Tinder date.”