The Feel and Smell of English Books

Occasionally I find it hard to wait for certain books to be published in the United States. Most of the time publication dates occur simultaneously here as in the United Kingdom. There are times, however, and inexplicably to me, when books will be published weeks, even months ahead in the UK before they are published in the US. It is at those times that I give in and pay the extra postage to have a book shipped to me from any number of English bookstores. One important book is Italo Calvino’s Complete Cosmicomics, which is not yet available in the US. The latest book to be included in this group is The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi. While reading this book late one night I noticed something different about this book than the others. To check I went to my shelves to examine the dozen or so books I’ve ordered from the UK. I’ve noticed that the books I get from the United Kingdom have a different feel and smell to them than our US editions.

The paper of English books seems to be much more brittle than it does here. The paper is also an off-white color that I can’t quite place. It’s almost as if the paper color wants to be sepia but cannot quite commit. The brittleness of the pages is off-putting at first. Every time I turn a page it feels as if I would rip it in half. The pages also give me a strange sensation. My fingers become what I can only describe as a bit numb. It’s odd, and not all pleasant. The closest I’ve come to the feeling of this is with books printed on recyclable paper in the US. The feel is almost the same, and the paper seems to be of a much cheaper quality than what we find in the US. In fact, most of the editions I’ve checked from the UK are printed from “responsible sources.” I’m not sure what that means exactly, but I do know that it’s probably good for the planet.

The smell English books carry with them is also much different from our US editions. I find that most US editions all have slightly different scents. The English ones carry the same scent, regardless of the publisher. This is obviously due to the type of paper and ink British publishers use. The smell is not as off-putting as the feel of the paper is, but it does take some getting used to. I associate the smell of American books with a joyous rapture that approaches, at least for me, an exotic nostalgia. English books smell more earthy and less romantic. There is a practicality to English books that is (thankfully) absent from their American cousins. English books have the same feel and smell regardless of whether they are in hardcover of paperback. I find English books much less valuable as a result of my sensory experience with them. This has, I hasten to add, nothing to do with common sense. But then, when it comes to bibliophilia, what does make sense?

What does become a concern for me is the longevity my UK editions will or will not have. Books are not immortal, and I do not have the money to take care of them in a way that I should. I cannot afford a temperature controlled environment and a room that is childproof. Yet, some of my UK editions are quite valuable, if not monetarily, then sentimentally. I know that it is quite unpopular and irresponsible to feel the way I do about books printed from recycled paper, but I cannot help but be a bit repelled by the look, feel, and smell of my English books.


5 thoughts on “The Feel and Smell of English Books

  1. I agree, the quality of printing here in the UK is poor. American editions are better and also Italian and French ones are far superior in my experience. The smell of an Italian bookshop in Padua (Feltrinelli) represents a sort of proustian awakening every time I go back.

  2. My experience has been a different one. I find UK books to be sturdier and have a more robust quality to them than their American counterparts. I have recently moved from the UK to the US and was surprised to find that books over here feel different. They are flimsy, with what feels like thinner, cheaper paper inside of them. Usually the cover is very thin. And the mass market paperback versions are atrocious. My American wife disagrees with me so perhaps it is simply what you are used to, but I do find myself longing for the feel of British books.

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