1 January 2022 Susannah

The Smell of Old Books

The Smell of Old Books

You have probably noticed that, when you walk into a second-hand book shop, there is a distinctive smell. I love the smell of old books and wish they could somehow bottle it and sell it as a perfume – what memories it would bring back!

Did you know what causes that aroma? It is the organic materials in a book (wood pulp, etc) reacting to light, water and heat and, over time, releasing Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs. What smell gets released depends on how the book was made, how it has been stored, and where it has travelled, but amongst the most common scents released are toluene and ethylbenzene (these have a sweetish smell), or benzaldehyde or furfural (which smell rather like almonds or vanilla). Coffee and chocolate (surely two of the best aromas in the world?) share many VOCs with decaying paper. Evidently, book VOCs are being used to date old books. A ‘book odour wheel’ has been created which identifies the various chemicals and people’s reactions to them.

Alberto Manguel, whose book A History of Reading I can strongly recommend, was for a time the director of the National Library of Argentina, and he is especially partial to the scent of old Penguin books because of their odour of “fresh rusk biscuits”. It is said that English parchment has a smell of warm leather. Books produced before around 1850 have a very different smell from books that appeared after that date, whereas medieval manuscripts, created on animal skins, have a scent all their own.

There is even a name for this smell – bibliosmia. You also find it in libraries – before people even get to the books, they become aware of the smell. Visitors to the Wren Library in St Paul’s Cathedral described the smell as ‘woody’, ‘earthy’, ‘smoky’ and ‘vanilla’. The heritage industry is grappling with a new interest in the historical importance of smell, as we identify aromas that have cultural meaning and significance. I believe that the British Library shop sells a scented candle which smells of ‘library’ – definitely on my list of ‘wanted’ objects!

Do you like the smell of old books? Can you categorise it? I’d love to hear from others who walk into second-hand book stores and stop on the doorstep to have a good sniff. Do let me know by leaving a comment.

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Featured image credit- Smelling an old book, image from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/the-quest-better-describe-scent-old-books-180962819/

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