The High Art of Smelling Books
August 4, 2014
People have raved about the smell of books for centuries. They’ve described it as musky, musty, and grassy, frequently with hints of vanilla
. No matter how you describe it, though, there’s something that escapes words, which is what makes the olfactory factor such a lovely complement to the text.
What is it that gives books that distinctive smell? As it turns out, the two main ingredients are resin (used to make the paper more amenable to ink) and lignin (part of the wood fiber). As these materials decay, they give off what those in the book (and chemistry) biz call volatile and semivolatile organic compounds, or VOCs. These VOCs produce the old-book musk, and now book preservers are even hoping they can use it as a non-invasive way of gauging the health of old books.
And it’s not just the centuries-old tomes that are putting off a highly sniffable aroma. Because books from 1850-1990 were drenched
in resin, which turns acidic as it ages, books from the last century or so are decaying at breakneck speed. While this poses a concern for historians and archivists, it also means that your old paperbacks may already smell like some of the dustiest and most dignified sections of your local library.*
We all know, though, that there’s more to the scent of books than just the paper. There’s a whole ecosystem that comes in that binding, because most well-loved volumes come with mold and other fungi. In the 1990s, the Chicago Tribune
even published an article
about how long-term exposure to the spores in very old books could send librarians and archivists teetering towards hallucinations. Publicize that tidbit, and you might see a lot more teenagers in the special collections section.
Despite the fact that the smell of books means that the pages are decaying, despite the danger of hallucinations, despite the occasional bad
-smelling book, it’s hard to imagine anyone is going to stop sniffing. For goodness’ sake, the perfumerie Demeter came out with a Paperback scent
! At last, readers who want to take the smell with them have a better option than rubbing their favorite pulp fiction on their wrists. All jokes aside, the musk of books is a powerful thing. Scent, after all, has a special link to our memory
– one whiff can waft us back to another bookshelf in another era, as The Guardian
’s Steven Poole points out from personal experience.** Moreover, through that tie to memory, scent has a special place in our identity. When we’re smelling books, we’re giving them the chance to become a long-lasting part of our sensory landscape, a part of us
. So sniff proudly. Sniff until you hyperventilate. Breathe deep and be changed, my friends.
*The science of decaying books related in this paragraph and the one before it is taken from Charles W. Schmidt’s article “On the Smell of Old Books
,” from the November 2006 issue of Analytical Chemistry
**See link in first paragraph.