Just a nice picture of the late Oliver Sacks
Let me take a trip down memory lane here. I’m no longer a teacher, but it’s moments like these that made it so worth it. It’s not exactly the first day of school, but close enough. It's 9 a.m., I’m crouching down to help one of my students generate visually stimulating linear designs for our first art project. We had already sidetracked into a conversation about drawing cartoons or something. Mid-sentence, she looks me straight in the eye and drops this one on me – “You smell like my grandpa.”
First things first – I was 35 when this happened. Secondly, I’ve been teaching for 17 years and I never heard this one before. Thirdly, my students generally have no idea that their art teacher wrote a book about smells, and rarely do I go down this road with them. But this time, I simply couldn’t help it. And why? Because I knew exactly what she was talking about.
I’ll start with this: old people and old books have a lot in common, odor-wise. Let’s focus on the substance lignin. It's one the main classes of structural materials in the support tissues of vascular plants. It’s very rigid, and doesn’t rot easily. The word itself is derived from a Latin form of “wood”. It’s in books, obviously, and it’s in people, less obviously (until you consider that we eat hella plants in our lifetime, i.e. grasses, i.e. wheat, rice, etc.). To quote a scientist who investigated the smell of old books, their scent is a combination of “grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness”.*
Why vanilla? Because it shares a similar structure with lignin, and although molecular structure and smell don’t necessarily correlate, they tend to, and in this case, they do. Babies, and in particular baby heads, smell like vanilla (Süskind calls it butterscotch). Babies drink breastmilk, which contains vanillin. This is part of the uroboric relationship between mother and child – the baby sniffs for a nipple, which has its own scent, and is rewarded by the milk, which reinforces the behavior by associating the smell and the satiation. Meanwhile the mother feeds her baby and is rewarded by the very specific smell of baby-head, which is then associated with all the other multimodal sensations of a cute, helpless little baby that we are hardwired to enjoy. It’s truly one of those beautiful circles of life that takes the metaphorical and actual physical shape of a yin-yang.
So babies smell like vanilla; and as we age, we smell more and more like a musty old book
During the school year I wear white cotton undershirts. During the summer I don’t. The day after the last day of school, I wash all my clothes and put them in the drawer where they stay for the next two months. I did notice that they weren’t 110% dry when I folded them and put them away, as it was really humid that summer day.
My drawers are made of wood, but the insides are what I’ll call particle board. That’s basically wood pulp and glue (i.e. the basic ingredients of a book). But wait, there’s more. The insides are surfaced with faux newspapers from the 19th century, which is simply ink printed on paper and adhered to the particle board. Put a stack of a dozen very, very slightly damp t-shirts in a drawer to marinate for two months in 90 degree heat, and there you have it: Instant grandpa.