The Smell Of Old Books

For our optional World Watercolor Month prompt of “Favorite Scent,” I wasn’t immediately sure I actually had one particular favorite. Indeed, any scent that triggers wonderful memories is always at the top of my list. Then I thought about the scent of old books. Not the kind of the mildew variety, but simply rather old with that familiar scent of aged wood with hints of vanilla, conjuring up so many stories from the past. As a kid, I’d spend entire summer afternoons in the library, flipping through book after book, often unable to choose the ones I would be taking home with me on that trip. I did love the smell of the new books that arrived with their crisp clean scent of fresh ink and promise of adventure. But, the older books had a history and a story beyond just what appeared on the pages. Some books had been donated and there would sometimes be a signature in the front cover. A simple “this book belongs to” or even simply “love, Mom” might appear there. These weren’t just old books. They had been well and truly loved.

Today, I still have many books from my childhood that are now probably older than some of the books I thought were old back then. Yet, there are some I still remember that I don’t have anymore. For example, I remember having a set of pocket-sized hardcover books in a little cardboard box called The Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak. I’m not sure I clearly remember the stories, but I just loved that the case had an illustration of a little boy at a table with a lion and they were both reading books. That was just super cool. And the idea that a person could both draw pictures as well as write a story was endlessly fascinating to me. I now remember vowing that I would grow up and do the same one day. I forgot that vow for years and my life didn’t go in that direction at all. But, it’s never too late to rewrite one’s own story, or indeed, fulfill a decades old promise made by a little kid with big dreams. As long as there’s a bit of time left, there’s always a chance to make that dream come true.

Though I still read books on a regular basis, they don’t all have pictures in them these days. But, I still read and love the ones that do. It’s like getting two stories in one. Art has a way of conjuring up its own unexpected ideas, no matter what it’s meant to illustrate. And that’s why I still remember all of those drawings that accompanied the stories of my youth. It’s been wonderful to make my own along the way as I recall those times I thought I might have forgotten. Sure, stories today often come in a digital format and I do appreciate the convenience. Yet, those stories don’t become objects of memory. They don’t sit on a shelf, hoping to be read again one day, while taking us back to that particular adventure whenever we gaze upon them. So much of life has become virtual these days, and that just makes the tangible things even more dear. Those physical reminders that life isn’t just rushing forward, it’s still part of a rich and treasured past, filled with impossible childhood dreams, priceless memories, and the smell of old books.

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Smell Of Old Books Cat Watercolor Painting Illustration Sketchbook Detail
Recommended5 recommendationsPublished in By Charlie
38 Comments
  1. Eduardo Cabrera Campos 2 months ago

    Fascinante, me gusto

  2. Karen Fortier 2 months ago

    That kitty looks so comfy doing what cats do, great post Charlie! I too love the smell of books. We have many bookcases full of our joint collection and a major stack in our to read pile.

    • Author
      Charlie O'Shields 2 months ago

      Thanks so much, Karen! 😃💕 That sounds wonderful. I’ve always wanted a room with nothing but for walls! hehe

  3. Mary Roff 2 months ago

    Ah, there is nothing quite like a beloved book collection. I still have the copy of Heidi that my Grandfather gave to my Mom and my dad’s copy of Call of the Wild. They are worn and well loved. For someone who doesn’t own a cat…you paint the best cats.!!!

    • Author
      Charlie O'Shields 2 months ago

      Aww thanks so much, Mary! 😃💕 Darn allergies… I wish I could own a cat! They are fun to sketch! So wonderful you have those copies of Heidi and Call of the Wild… that’s awesome!

  4. Lisa Ann Ulibarri 2 months ago

    The book shelf kitty aweeeeeeeeee sweet!!! so wonderful!!!! My sister has one of those little libraries and it is so fun to check it out and see what treasures await lol. One lovely invention to encourage the importance of a real book!! 🙂 Her and I both buy kids classics for it to bring those books to another generation or perhaps someone to rekindle an old love. 🙂

    • Author
      Charlie O'Shields 2 months ago

      Thanks so much, Lisa! 😃💕 Aww I love that you both buy kids classic books!

  5. Sharon Bonin-Pratt 2 months ago

    Before I read one word of this post, you’d melted my heart with this sweet kitten lost in the nook of piled books. She must have her little paw on The Cat Who Went to Heaven, a book that touched my heart and soul when I was a kid and convinced me I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. That hasn’t happened. (I did become an art teacher, favorite job ever!) Though I’ve written 5 books, none are published (yet.)

    Our older grandson loved books from infancy. As young as 18 months, when he got a new one, he’d carefully turn every new page and deeply inhale the scent. This went on for years.

    As for the Nutshell Library – we still have ours. Unfortunately, One was Johnny is missing. When she was two, our older granddaughter found our recycling bin enchanting. She loved to drop everything she could find into the slit at the top. We had to remember to look through the bin to save what was not supposed to get thrown out. Sadly we’re pretty sure One was Johnny landed in it, forever gone. The other titles are Pierre, Chicken Soup with Rice (our favorite) and Alligators All Around.

    Always fun to read your daily entry and see what memories you’ll trigger. Today was especially wonderful – thank you, Charlie. And you keep hanging on to your dream of publishing a story book filled with your illustrations.

    • Lisa 2 months ago

      You can buy just that book if you want to fill in your collection. Abe books has it for about $17.

    • Author
      Charlie O'Shields 2 months ago

      Thanks so much, Sharon! 😃💕 So thrilled this brought back good memories! And aww… Johnny got recycled it would seem. hehe… that’s too cute. I would have had the same fascination if we had a bin like that.

  6. Lisa 2 months ago

    My first library job after grad school was director of a small town library. It was so small that I pretty much did everything including running story time. So I got to read books again that I only read as a kid. What fun! And introducing kids to books was a great job! I also got to do puppet shows and help run worm races. Good times!

    • Author
      Charlie O'Shields 2 months ago

      That does sound like the best job ever, Lisa! 😃💕 The books also, of course… but yay for puppet shows!! hehe

  7. Sandra Strait 2 months ago

    I used to walk to the library after school (often with books from the school library already in my bag) on Friday afternoon, check out 8 or 10 books, and then read them all over the week-end. One of my biggest disappointments in life was learning that I was allergic to book mold and some of the ingredients in ink. I had to get rid of the 300 books or so I had in bedroom, so I could breathe while sleeping. I still miss some of those books.

    • Author
      Charlie O'Shields 2 months ago

      Oh wow! That’s too bad you had to get rid of those books, but yeah, breathing is rather important! 😉 So it’s all good!

  8. Marisela Delgado 2 months ago

    Hola, Charlie! Beautiful painting! Cute kitty. 🐱🐱 I am a “smelly” person, too. Smelly as in that I love scents. ( I still have all of my childhood books also. ) Growing up, I loved the smell of Crayola crayons. I still do. I remember helping my teachers pass out newly copied papers. They were cool, damp, and smelled like toner from those old hand-cranked copy machines. Oh, they smelled wonderful! One day, as I was walking through Walmart, I was stopped in my tracks from a scent that took me right back to kindergarten and the scratch and sniff stickers that my teacher would give out. Isn’t that crazy? 😊 You mentioned how the new digital things just aren’t the same as holding something cherished in your hands. I am a handwritten letter writer. All of my life, I have had a major love affair with paper and pens and envelopes. I LOVE TO WRITE! That’s how I got sucked into rubber stamping. I purchased stamps to decorate my envelopes. While people have been rude and made scrunchy face at my old-timey mode of communication, I have never had a bad or negative reaction from a recipient. I have friends that still have my letters from decades back. Nothing beats holding a loving token from someone, who is no longer with you or living far away. 😊 Beautiful painting, Charlie.

    • Author
      Charlie O'Shields 2 months ago

      Thanks so much, Marisela! 😃💕 Aww I love that you love to write and hand letter! Yeah, people always seem shocked that someone might do that these days, but they always love to get the letter. It’s more unique and rate than ever now!

  9. Priscilla DeConti 2 months ago

    Love your painting…I used to be more of a reader than today..and I remember being taken away from the dreariness around me and being transported through the words and my imagination…Art today helps fill that void but there still isnt anything like a good book!!! Precious memories!

    • Author
      Charlie O'Shields 2 months ago

      Thanks so much, Priscilla! 😃💕 You should read more! It’s a great way way to exercise the imagination. And safest way to “travel” these days. hehe 😉

  10. Nabeela 2 months ago

    I wish I could see the video of your doodling…. Again you nailed it….

    • Author
      Charlie O'Shields 2 months ago

      Aww thanks so much, Nabeela! 😃💕 I’ve only done a couple live videos…. I put my tips in my Sketching Stuff Activity books! 😉

      • Nabeela 2 months ago

        Ohhh…. You have live videos too…. Can you share me the link???

        • Author
          Charlie O'Shields 2 months ago

          Just interviews… two were during the annual Sketchbook Revival, but it was a course you had to sign up for so they’re not live. 😊

  11. Mugdha 2 months ago

    Hello Charlie,

    Mmmm the smell of books – old & new! Thats the only thing I touch a newspaper for – to smell it. Other than that I detest newspapers. Your post resonated at so many levels. Thanks so much for talking about The Nutshell Library. I dream of someday having a collection of the most adorable children’s books and Maurice Sendak & Ruth Krauss’ books top my list. I’ll probably end up living in a huge library but what can be better than that?! The sketch as usual brought back the best childhood memories. 🙂

    Love,
    Mugdha

    • Author
      Charlie O'Shields 2 months ago

      Thanks, Mugdha! 😃💕 Thrilled this brought back great childhood memories! And I can’t think of anything better than a huge library filled with real books!

  12. LoriCtoo 2 months ago

    This is so wonderful! Such a fun scene! I love this! Books will never go away in our house. We all have our small collections. My son actually collects old books(early 1900’s) on the Columbia Gorge.

    • Author
      Charlie O'Shields 2 months ago

      Thanks so much, Lori! 😃💕 Aww yay! And I love that your son collects old books!

  13. shawnthompsonart 2 months ago

    Nice painting, and good job on the cat. I really like the earthy colours you used on the books. Unfortunately however, I do not know too many litterate cats. hmm I suppose thats a good thing, at least if cats cant read it proves I am at least partially sane.

  14. Gaina 2 months ago

    I love the smell of books too. A job in the back rooms of a library or museum would be absolute bliss to me. 🙂

    I’ve had a kindle for a few years now, and bought LOADS of books, but I’ve hardly read any of them (I keep going back to my ‘comfort book’, ‘The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating’ by Elisabeth Tova Bailey – I highly recommend it).

    I seem to get on with reference books well in digital format but for a sensory experience, nothing beats holding a real book.

    • Author
      Charlie O'Shields 2 months ago

      So true, Gaina!! 😃💕 There’s just something special about reading a real book. I love my Kindle, but still like to hold a real book every now and again.

  15. Gary Middleton 2 months ago

    Fun doodle, Charlie. I love to look round second hand bookshops, which have that musty smell.

    • Author
      Charlie O'Shields 2 months ago

      Thanks so much, Gary! 😃💕 Me too! Second hand bookshops are always so fun to browse!

  16. Bird 2 months ago

    I love the smell of old books too, but most of all the smell of fresh ink. My dad operated a printing press at work when I was a child, and I still remember the noise and smell from it. Whenever I happen to come upon paper printed the “old way” I cannot help but take a good sniff.

    • Author
      Charlie O'Shields 2 months ago

      Aww that’s so wonderful!! 😃💕 Awesome that your dad operated a printing press. So wonderful memories!

  17. Fanna Turano 2 months ago

    Oh Charlie…you paint the best kitties. So sweet and expressive. I love this one too and will add it to my collection.

    I thought of 2 nice “smells,” and the first was coffee, the second, also books! In my late teens I worked in my hometown library in Newport, RI. My job title was “page” ironically enough, doing all of the jobs low on the totem pole. I put all of the returned books away, (the Dewey Decimal system made a home in my brain), as well as the happy task of riding in the Newport book mobile, and checking out books for the vehicular-challenged. (I made that up!). Being a chatty, social girl, the quiet drove me crazy, so I lasted only six months, but will never forget the scent of those glorious books which was on my hands for hours. It’s one of those happy home and hearth (pardon my alliteration) smells that stays with you a lifetime. To this day, I sniff and fan through every book I touch.

    Anyway, I loved your choice of scent, and another sweet kitty. This post brought back a lot of memories of the library and better yet, BOOKS!

    • Author
      Charlie O'Shields 2 months ago

      Aww thanks so much, Fanna! 😃💕 Aww that’s so cool you worked in a library. I’ve always loved libraries… the first book I wrote is actually an allegory for a library and had the Dewey Decimal system in it! hehe So thrilled this brought back so many good memories!

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