The Smell Of Books – Mythbusters’s Edition

The “smell of books” is an evocative phrase and a contentious subject. Our ebooks’ (or should that be ubooks’) blog was even originally named for it with the first ever blog post taking on the idea directly. Fans of the paper book (or “dead tree”, as it is less kindly known) rhapsodise lyrical about the joy of the feel and distinct smell of older books, and during the week I came across a tumblr image giving what seemed to be a scientific endorsement of that love.

The image is that of a quote, apparently from a book called Perfume: The Guide, which reads:

“Lignin, the stuff that prevents all trees from adopting the weeping habit, is a polymer made up of units that are closely related to vanillin. When made into paper and stored for years, it breaks down and smells good. Which is how divine providence has arranged for secondhand bookstores to smell like good quality vanilla absolute, subliminally stoking a hunger for knowledge in all of us.”

A quick google revealed that the quote has really got around with over sixteen thousand results from bookshops and book-publishers and book bloggers and more.  It’s a wonderful quote; evoking instant nostalgia for browsing second hand book stores and dawdling in comfy chairs in the library. It sounds, simply, too delicious to actually be true.

Well, there’s the sad bit – it probably isn’t true. Old books don’t always smell of vanilla – as a quick sniff through the more elderly titles on my book shelf told me. Even with my beloved copy of the Never-Ending Story (30 years old, and done in three different shades of ink) I was getting more of a musty damp smell than the urge to lick the page.

I decided to look it up. The quote is indeed from a book called Perfume: The Guide but – according someone who works in the book business – it’s not particularly accurate, and they made their own image (complete with a NSFW word meaning male bull excretion stamped over it, so be warned if you click at work) to refute it.

“Old books don’t smell good. They’re also not made from lignin. They are made from cellulose. The lignin is the sugary glue that holds the cellulose together in the form of wood. When the paper is made, they cook the lignin out of the wood to get cellulose. The lignin is a waste product that’s usually burned in a boiler. It doesn’t make it into your book and doesn’t smell like vanilla. It smells like molasses. This whole thing was pulled from someone’s ass to make you feel good about old books.

Signed, someone in a paper factory.”

But now I had two opinions on the smell of books, neither of which seem particularly unbiased. I did a bit more digging and found a slightly longer and more scientific (and less sweary) explanation in an interview conducted by the Naked Scientist with the Head of Laboratory for Cultural Heritage at the University Library of Slovenia:

“An odour of a book is a complex mixture of odorous volatiles, emitted from different materials from which books are made.  Due to the different materials used to make books throughout history, there is no one characteristic odour of old books.  A professional perfumer has evaluated seventy odorous volatiles emitted from books and described their smells as dusty, musty, mouldy, paper-like or dry.

The pleasant aromatic smell is due to aromatic compounds emitted mainly from papers made from ground wood which are characterised by their yellowish-brown colour.  They emit vanilla-like, sweetly fragrant vanillin, aromatic anisol and benzaldehyde, with fruity almond-like odor.  On the other hand, terpene compounds, deriving from rosin, which is used to make paper more impermeable to inks, contribute to the camphorous, oily and woody smell of books.  A mushroom odour is caused by some other, intensely fragrant aliphatic alcohols.

A typical odour of ‘old book’ is thus determined mixture of fragrant volatiles and is not dominated by any single compound.  Not all books smell the same.”

So, is there a smell of books? Yes, but not just one and not always as pleasant a one as the phrase “smell of books” tries to conjure. Sometimes it’s a touch of vanilla, other times it’s a touch of damp wood. Does this mean I’ll be junking my collection of beloved older books for a smell-free electronic version? Definitely not. I just need to pull them out more often to air – it’s a great excuse to read them anyway. What’s the oldest book on your shelves, and what does it smell of for you?

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Sadhbh Warren

Sadhbh Warren is a freelance writer and proud booklover. Her name is pronounced Sive - like five – an Irish name, easier to say than spell! She lives in Sydney, writing travel and humour articles, and is always on the lookout for a great new book.