The Smell of New Zealand Books

Landfall New Zealand Charles Brasch, Oxford, books
The wonderfully textured paper of the early Landfalls.

Perhaps it’s obvious, from some of the essays I’ve recently posted here, that I’m missing New Zealand. As soon as winter seeped into Oxford my reading turned to home, and I began to spend each evening at the library with piles of books on New Zealand ordered from the closed stacks. (The Bodleian has a good pre-1950 collection of NZ-related books, I think because New Zealand publishers must still have fallen under the legal deposit). I decided not to return home over the Christmas break but instead to travel to Italy, Amsterdam and Berlin—and I took with me the only book from home I could find in time, a copy of the 1960 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, with Allen Curnow’s famed introduction.

Because I hadn’t brought any books with me from home when I moved here, I also began to buy second-hand books on New Zealand whenever they popped up in bookstores in Oxford or online. The first I bought was a set of the second volume of Landfall, from 1948. They arrived in the mail, I opened them—and the experience was for me the equivalent to the old Proustian Madeleine.

The smell! Immediately, I was back in my grandparents’ living room, foraging in their bookshelves for the not-seen-in-forty-years third-row-deep books. Instantly, it was summer in Wellington with pohutukawa in bloom down the street, and I felt again my fear of getting any sunscreen on the books. Or maybe it was winter, and I was in my Mum’s old villa beside the fire, youthfully dog-earing pages of books that now I think should be kept behind glass. Smelling the covers again now—those peculiarly knobbled, rough covers of the early years of Landfall—all the same memories and feelings flood back.

I remember reading (though cannot find the book here in Oxford to check the quotation) of John Mulgan’s first winter in the UK, and the arrival of a letter from home containing some leaves his parents had clipped from their back garden in Auckland. He described in his diary the feelings and memories they brought back, and the consequent longing for home. Well, my equivalent leaves are the leaves of Mulgan’s Man Alone, and of so many other touchstones of our culture. Their smells make what I’m missing so much more palpable.

But back to Landfall: there was something more to the smell of their pages than simply the knowledge that they were from home, or that the words they contained were significant to me. They smelled like New Zealand, of specifically what I have come to know New Zealand’s culture to smell like. Writing this seems odd, even laughable. Now, when books are digitally printed and publishers source paper from ever more similar (read: cheaper) suppliers, the material differences between books have been so reduced as to be barely worth commenting on. But it wasn’t always like that.

I don’t know if The Caxton Press found their paper in New Zealand (maybe someone can help me on this?), but I do know that the paper Glover and Bensemann printed on—especially their covers!—I haven’t seen or smelled elsewhere. Horizon, Cyril Connolly’s quarterly that Brasch and the others modelled Landfall on in the early days, feels and smells (not to mention looks) cheap in comparison. Partly this may have been war shortages limiting materials; but more likely, I just don’t think the same sense of art was given to their printing as was given to Landfall.

Many important New Zealand books were printed in England (many still are), so this thought of a specific smell to New Zealand books can’t extend too far. Mulgan’s Man Alone was printed at the start of the war in the UK, and few copies even made it to New Zealand. John Beaglehole’s journals of Cook were published by the Hakluyt Society in London. But even then, I wonder if New Zealand dust smells differently, peppering the pages in an air not to be found elsewhere. After all, is the smell books acquire over time not simply the condensed smell of the air in which they live?

I won’t take those thoughts further (smells slip away the moment they’re put in words). But to any friends who catch me awkwardly lifting Landfall too frequently to my nose, let these thoughts suffice as an (admittedly odd) explanation.