When eyes are not enough- scouting with multiple senses

When confronting a mountain of books a pile can often become so overwhelming that it doesn’t seem like there’s anyway to deal such a huge pile of items.  How will you ever look through it all?

Don’t simply look, rely on your other senses.  Overreliance on sight means you may pass over treasures or simply be unable to complete a survey in the available time. A wealth of data can be gleaned about a book from your other senses, all processed together at once.  Reading each title isn’t necessary if you use you other senses to determine which books to focus your attention upon.  You don’t even have to notice all these details consciously.  When you process them all at once, you will be able to pick out books with great speed, seemingly by magic.


If the whole lot smells so strongly that the smell if your very first impression, the odds are that the seller didn’t take very good care of them. When dealing with an enormous pile of books that has either been brought to you, or is at an estate sale, if there is a distinct odor this should give you a good clue that its best to spend your time and effort elsewhere.  If you can smell the books from a few feet away, its best to spend your time elsewhere.   The odds of there being an undiscovered treasure drop as soon as you notice that smell.  There could be a fabulous book in there… that is in hideous condition and will simply make you rage and how it’s been destroyed.

You may also encounter individual books with an odor, which will become obvious only when brought close.  If you are in doubt as to whether you should risk your money on a particular book you know nothing about, opening the book and sniffing the insides is a good way to make a decision.  That quick sniff can tell you a great deal about how the book was kept, where it was kept, whether its been near bugs, water, fungus, or smoke.

With individual books that you know to be valuable, a faint lingering smell may be worth taking the book home anyway, if you think you can rid it of the scent. But if it makes your eyes water and choke, pass it by.   You almost certainly will never be able to fix it and the stench may only be the most obvious problem…


This is the one that will give you the most information quickly.  Confronted with rows and rows of books, simply running a hand over them as you visually scan can give you a wealth of data.  Running your hands over the spines will tell you a lot about the paper quality used and thus save you pulling out a promising book only to find its a book club edition.  A brief touch of the spine can let you feel if there’s any tilts iin the spine, any creases, if teh paper or fabric is softening or wearing.  A brushed along the top edge of books will tell you if the jacket is still crisp or if it’s been softened. A brush can let you feel if the gilt lettering is flaking or the leather has dried out.  A brush along the top will also let you feel if there’s loads of dust that’s built up on the edge and likely stained the top.  You’ll  be able to feel whether its square cut or if it has rougher edges as typical with some specialty books. A book with crumbling pulp pages will have a peculiar feel like dry leaves to it.

When you actual pull a book out, you get a great deal of info in that brief initial pull.  As you pull it out you may it feel it shift in your grip, telling you the binding is loose or even broken.  That first grip of a paperback will let you feel if there’s any warping due to getting wet.  The feel of the cover and the finish (or lack of finish) on it will often give you a  good guess as to when it was printed.  Irregularities in the cover due to grit, grime, sticker residue, tears, or indentations may be easier to feel than to see with a brief scan.

The weight of a book as you pull it out can also tell you a great deal.  Different types and grades of paper have different weights.  You have a certain expectation of how much a book should weigh.  One that weighs noticibly more or less than a book of its size should warrants further inspection.  Extra weight often indicates the book is illustrated or is printed on a higher grade of paper.  Lighter may indicate that it’s a particularly low quality copy or even that it’s missing part of the book!


Hearing?  Books don’t make noise!  They most certainly do make noise.  A book that has gotten wet and dried again makes a peculiar crinling noise when picked up.  A book with thin onion skin pages makes a slightly different noise when picked up than one on regular weight paper.  A book with a tight binding makes a slight snap and crakle noise as soon as it is opened.  One with a loose binding won’t crackle until fully open.

Sounds are perhaps the hardest part to pick up


Please don’t lick the books. Nobody wants to see that.

Taste will almost never come into play, but if you are in doubt on the smell of a book, whether there truly is an odor or not, inhaling through the mouth may let you ‘taste’ off smells.  Taste is tied to smell, you’re just perceiving it in a slightly different way.  If you have a cold or allergies that stop up your nose, inhaling to taste the scent may let you pick up on mold you’d otherwise miss.

Put all these together and no estate sale, thrift store, or library sales thousands of volumes will deter you.  You’ll be able to swiftly move through the stacks and find treasure.

1 thought on “When eyes are not enough- scouting with multiple senses”

  1. This is a very informative post, covering aspects of book-buying that we booksellers pick up over the years but often wouldn’t think to share with beginners. Excellent! Only six days ago I was in a colleague’s shop, and when he put an old book in my hands I automatically opened it and lifted it to my nose to take a sniff. He laughed but understood perfectly what I was doing and why.

    The feel of books–the feel of old bindings and high-quality paper. Don’t we all love this?

    Thanks, Nora.

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