What Do You Call That Wonderful Old Book Smell?

alex atkins bookshelf booksA fews decades ago, in a top ten list of holiday gifts to give or receive, books were the number one gift. (Today, according to Statista, the top five gifts for consumers are: clothing, toys/hobbies, gift cards, and food.) One of the most cherished memories of those earlier times was visiting bookstores, especially used bookstores where holiday shoppers could delight in that wonderful, enchanting old book or bookstore smell. Any book lover knows what I am talking about — that initial blissful sight of countless stacks of books enriched by the aroma of old books. It’s hard to explain exactly — a bit of mustiness mixed with a hint of vanilla. A team of British chemists that tested the air surrounding old books using electronic sniffing equipment described the bouquet more precisely: “A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.” Bingo. This is of course, a very different smell than walking into a bookstore that sells new books. There, the bibliophile immediately detects the “new book smell.” So what exactly creates the unique scent of old books?

The scent of a book is created by four main factors: paper (and the chemicals used to make it), ink, adhesives used to bind the book, and to a minor degree environment (the smells that paper absorbs during its lifetime). Let’s start with the paper. Paper is made of would pulp that is processed with many chemicals during its manufacturing — sodium hydroxide, hydrogen peroxide, alkyl ketene dimer (AKD), among several others. These chemicals, through their presence or reactions, contribute to the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which produce unique odors. The same thing happens with the chemicals found in the ink to print the book (e.g., AKD and hydrogen peroxide) and the adhesives used to bind the book (e.g., vinyl acetate ethylene). Since new books have not absorbed much of their environment (e.g., cigar smoke, coffee, mold etc.), this is not a critical factor for new books.

When it comes to old books, things become far more interesting, chemically speaking. The most salient factor in “old book smell” is the chemical breakdown of compounds within paper due to the presence of acids in the environment. Researchers at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage at University College London were interested in studying the smells that are a part of our cultural heritage. The scientists write: “We don’t know much about the smells of the past. Yet, odors play an important role in our daily lives: they affect us emotionally, psychologically and physically, and influence the way we engage with history. Can this lead us to consider certain smells as cultural heritage? And if so, what would be the processes for the identification, protection and conservation of those heritage smells?… The smell of historic paper was chosen as the case study, based on its well-recognized cultural significance and available research.” The scientists found that the breakdown of cellulose and lignin produces eight classes of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) depicted in their “Historic Book Odor Wheel” that shows these eight unique scents: smoky/burnt; fragrant/fruity/vegetable/flowers; medicinal; fishy/rancid; chemical/hydrocarbons; earthy/musty/moldy; sweet/spicy; grassy/woody. More specifically, the researchers identified the unique aromas of these key VOCs: benzaldehyde creates an almond scent; vanillin creates a vanilla scent; 2-ethyl hexanol creates a slightly floral scent; and ethyl benzene and toluene create sweet scents. In fact, some compounds, like furfural (which smells like almond), can even be used to determine the age of a book. Unlike a new book, an old book’s paper has had time to absorb some environmental odors (e.g., smoke, coffee, etc.) that can add to its rich aroma.

A rich, nuanced, and evocative aroma like this deserves a proper name, doesn’t it? Enter Dr. Oliver Tearle, an English professor at Loughborough University (UK) and author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lover’s Journey Through the Curiosities of History. Teale, a true bibliophile and scholar, introduces us to the word “bibliosmia” derived from the Greek words biblio (meaning “book”) and osme (meaning “scent, smell, or odor”). He writes, “Clearly ‘bibliosmia’ names something which people feel is an important part of the reading experience, and something which Bradbury’s ‘burned fuel’ cannot provide. In the supposed age of the e-book, bibliosmia is one of the key weapons of the resistance.” By ‘burned fuel,’ Teale is referring to an oft-quoted remark made by Ray Bradbury at BookExpo America (New York City, May 2008): “There is no future for e-books, because they are not books. E-books smell like burned fuel.” Ironically, this is after his publisher, Simon & Schuster, announced that they would be making thousands of titles available for the Kindle — including Fahrenheit 451. Awkward.

Coming up with a word for the smell of old books was also the subject of a discussion on Facebook post back in 2017. A contributor named Arun Prasad (writing with the user name “The Bookoholics”) wrote: “The most commonly used word to describe the smell of old books is ‘musty.’ However, there’s no defined word yet. A bibliophile refers to the smell [of old books] by the word ‘bibliochor.'” Prasad explains that the word was inspired by the beautiful word petrichor (introduced by Australian mineral chemists in 1964; petrichor is defined as the distinctive smell associated with the first rainfall after a long dry period), a word that combines the Greek word-forming element biblio- (meaning “book,” derived from biblion meaning “paper, scroll”) and from the Modern Latin word ichor or Greek word ikhor (meaning “ethereal fluid that flows in the veins of the gods.”) So now, dear reader, you have beautiful, wonderful words to define that pleasant, intoxicating smell of old books: bibliosmia and bibliochor.

This invites the question: if they can make “new car smell” sprays, why can’t they make “old book smell” sprays? No company has actually tried and succeeded; it remains the elusive Holy Grail of the burgeoning ebook market. In an article for The Guardian titled “Old Spines — Why We Love the Smell of Secondhand Books,” David Shariatmadari introduces two perfumes that evoke the smell of a used bookstore: Paperback (made by Demeter) and Dzing! (made by L’Artisan Parfumeur). in their fascinating book, Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, perfume critics Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez discuss how lignin, a polymer that stops trees from drooping and is chemically related to the molecule vanillin, is the key ingredient in Dzing! that evokes that alluring old book smell. The authors elaborate, “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.” 

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For further reading: interestingliterature.com/2017/07/on-the-science-of-bibliosmia-that-enticing-book-smell/

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