The Sweet Smell of Provenance
By Rich Oram and Edward L. Bishop
A characteristic item found in libraries' special collections is the so-called association copy, a book whose significance derives from its connection with a well-known writer, artist, or historical figure. The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin is legendary for owning no fewer than 37 of the 1,000 copies of the first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses, many of which are association copies.
One copy—which used to belong to T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia—stands out for its full range of appeals to the senses. The volume has been rebound in sumptuous wine-red leather ornamented with gilt, and it gives every indication of frequent use, including a well-rubbed binding. Inside, on more than 150 pages, are pencil annotations about the Dublin landmarks in Joyce's masterpiece, as well as more than a few black smudges and even a couple of biscuit crumbs.
In addition, Lawrence's copy of Ulysses is remarkable for its smell. The book has been shown to many visitors and students over the years. When it is carefully removed from the shelf and ceremoniously divested of its acid-free box, which helps preserve the volume, even from several inches away you can smell a sweet, somewhat smoky aroma that suffuses every bit of paper and leather. Many people assume it must be the residue of pipe tobacco, perhaps the fruit-scented variety. The aroma is a spur to the imagination, summoning up romantic visions of Lawrence by his fireside, puffing reflectively on a meerschaum, immersed in the drama of Leopold Bloom.
The aroma made its way into the pages of Nicholas A. Basbanes's A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World (HarperCollins, 2003), which looks at why libraries preserve the items they do. Basbanes noted that the Ransom Center has collected so many copies of Ulysses in part because of their associations. Not surprisingly, he focused on the singularly sensual Lawrence copy and the "tobacco" scent.
Basbanes's reference to Lawrence's pipe was piquant enough to draw the attention of a book reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement. A Lawrence devotee spotted the review and wrote a letter to the Times saying that the scent could not be tobacco because Lawrence never smoked a pipe (Ed Maggs, a London rare-books dealer and Lawrence admirer, had earlier made the same point during a visit to the Ransom Center). Another correspondent had a theory that the smell was ink.
Sniffing a literary controversy in the making, one of us—Richard Oram—decided to have the copy examined scientifically. State-of-the-art tests by a company specializing in the analysis of commercial scents would have been costly and time-consuming. The more practical alternative was to test the aroma on eight of the Center's conservators, whose highly trained noses are so acute that they could detect the differences between strains of molds. The verdict was split: Some of the eight thought they smelled deteriorated leather; others voted for ashes, pipe smoke, the exhaust from Lawrence's famous motorbike, and even licorice.
As so often happens in special-collections libraries, a hallway conversation between a curator and a scholar—the authors of this essay—uncovered the solution. Edward Bishop's research on the Lawrence copy, which had been published in the 1998 Joyce Studies Annual, revealed that the marginalia in the volume were not in Lawrence's hand. Mainly factual notes to do with Dublin, they were by his friend W. M. M. Hurley and may have been written for Lawrence, who had trouble getting through the book.
Lawrence once complained to the painter Eric Kennington, "Arnold Bennett... said the perfect word about Ulysses, when he swore that Joyce had made novel-reading a form of penal servitude... Such dull stuff... It goes on for ever."
While stationed at the Royal Air Force base in Karachi, Pakistan, Lawrence lent books to the "book-hungry men." He wrote to George Bernard Shaw's wife, Charlotte: "We are rough, and dirty handed, so that some of the volumes are nearly read to death. You can tell the pet ones, by their shabbiness." The crumbs and stains in Lawrence's Ulysses testify to servicemen's reading the book on their breaks with a mug of tea and a biscuit. Or perhaps a pipe.
In another case of olfactory scholarship, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, authors of The Social Life of Information (Harvard Business School Press, 2000), refer to the medical historian who was seen sniffing eighteenth-century papers in a Portuguese archive. He could determine how far a cholera outbreak had traveled by detecting the telltale smell of vinegar used as a disinfectant, which was still attached to the paper after more than two centuries. As Brown and Duguid observe, scent cannot be conveyed in any digitized form (at least until a digital scratch-and-sniff is invented).
Librarians and archivists have long known that the mysterious spoor of provenance—the fascination provoked by the famous people who once owned objects like books, manuscripts, and clothes—enthralls both professional scholars and casual visitors to exhibitions. An object connected to a celebrity provides a frisson, a sense of contact with the past and with the famous person.
The encounter with the Lawrence Ulysses had convinced Bishop—who was then in the early stages of writing Riding With Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books (Viking Canada, 2005)—that working in an archive is like riding a motorcycle: You read the topography of the texts as well as the linguistic codes; you get a perceptual jolt as well as an intellectual thrill. Responding to handwriting, looking at the stamps on letters, feeling and sniffing paper, hearing the flap of heavy parchment pages, you read with all your senses.
Lawrence's sweet-smelling Ulysses is unusually evocative because it "speaks" to the human sense most closely associated with memory. That association copy is truly associative, relating a story not only about Lawrence, as it turns out, but about other readers as well. Although the olfactory element is rare, most books in special collections have their tales to tell, their sweet smell of provenance. Without denying the considerable research value of digital surrogates, we maintain that only preserving original artifacts can ensure that future readers will be able to share the same sensory experience.
Richard W. Oram is Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian at the Ransom Center. Edward L. Bishop is a professor of English at the University of Alberta. This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education on September 30, 2005.