When someone talks about “the smell of old books,” the image that immediately comes to mind for me is sitting curled up with blankets, pillows, a mug of hot chocolate, and a book on a comfy, plush window seat while rain pours down outside. For someone else, it might be sitting in a college library late at night while you pour over books and flip through pages searching for that one piece of information that will bring your essay together—and the feeling of triumph when you finally find it. For yet another person, it might be a memory of laying out on a picnic blanket in the park, while sun beats on your face and lights up the words you’re reading.
Dr. Alex Russell, a senior doctoral fellow at Queensland University in Australia, says that the smell of old books is “the smell of the book disintegrating over time and odorous molecules going up our nose.” The organic chemicals in books react with light, heat, and water molecules, and they release volatile organic compounds (VOCs). What VOCs are released depends on when the book was made and how it was stored. Some common scents are the sweet-smelling toluene or ethylbenzene, or the almond-smelling benzaldehyde or furfural, or even the vanilla-smelling vanillin. Three different chemical scents of old books, and those are just the common ones.
If you look up “the smell of old books,” you’ll find entry upon entry trying to quantify what old books smell like. Matija Strlič of University College London lead a study about the smell of old books in 2009 and described the smell as “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness, this unmistakable smell is as much a part of the book as its contents.”
A later study by Cecilia Bembibre and Strlič set up an experiment at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery where visitors were treated to several unlabeled and concealed smells. The vast majority of the 79 people in the experiment identified the smell of old books as smelling like chocolate. Others identified it as smelling like coffee. And when they repeated that experiment at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, participants described the smell as more woody and smoky, perhaps because they were surrounded by the famous architecture of the cathedral.
So how do we figure out what the smell of old books actually is? If no one can agree, and the science can’t explain all of it, then what now?
Dr. Russell goes on to talk about how memory and association affect “the smell of old books.” He says, “days spent reading these old books are really quite a relaxing, attractive kind of time in our lives, so that smell gets associated with that sense of relaxation and enjoying ourselves and finding new knowledge.” He even goes on to share a personal anecdote about how the smell of an old law book brings him back to days spent with an old partner. This association is his alone, and if someone else were to smell that same book with its same chemicals, it wouldn’t mean the same thing to them because they don’t have that association.
So when someone says, “ah, I love the smell of old books,” what they love is not just the actual book smell but also the association and memory of hours spent relaxing, learning, and having fun. Memories of a good book or a peaceful afternoon that come back when you smell this particular scent are what make people love it so much. So we can spend all the time we want trying to codify and quantify what old books actually smell like and we can look at the different chemicals and scents released from disintegrating books, but the secret to the “smell of old books” are the memories attached to them.
Feature Image Via Trinity College