If you ever wandered up into the attic to look at your grandparent’s old books, or through a used bookstore perusing the shelves, you know that smell. When you open one of the tomes and flip through the pages, did you ever wonder what causes that “Old Book Smell“? It is sort of a hint of vanilla, maybe a little grassy smell, with some mustiness?
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 second hand bookstores to smell like good quality vanilla absolute, subliminally stoking a hunger for knowledge in all of us.
Perfumes: The A-Z Guide by Luca Turin
In the 1920s and 1930s, Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), an Austrian writer, journalist and playwright was one of the most popular writers in the world, at the height of his career. In The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, author George Prochnik explains:
[H]e often seemed more concerned with the smell, look, and feel of his work than with the actual words. Printer’s ink struck him as the most fragrant odor on earth — “sweeter than attar of roses from Shiraz.”
Prolific author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), of Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and many other works both inside and outside the realm of science fiction whose career spanned over 70 years, believed:
There are two perfumes to a book. If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hands and pray to it. You put it in your pocket and you walk with it. And it stays with you forever.
New York Times tech blogger Nick Bilton wrote about wandering into a West Village bookstore on a visit to New York:
I immediately felt a sense of nostalgia that I haven’t felt in a long time. The scent of physical books—the paper, the ink, the glue—can conjure up memories of a summer day spent reading on a beach, a fall afternoon in a coffee shop, or an overstuffed chair by a fireplace as rain patters on a windowsill.
Be sure to check out The New York Times [LENS] which has a beautiful slideshow of old, discarded books.
For Further Reading:
The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers’ Is It More Than Old Book Smell?
Smithsonian Magazine “That ‘Old Book Smell’ is a Mix of Grass and Vanilla”
Matija Strlič’s Study in 2009: Material Degradomics: On the Smell of Old Books
Stefan Zweig: Grand Budapest Hotel’s Inspiration
The Science of “The Smell of Books”
Note:Old book bindings at the Merton College library, photo by Tom Murphy VII distributed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.