For many of us, the scent of a book represents windows into innumerable worlds. Chemists have tried to translate this experience and have described books as smelling grassy and acidic with hints of vanilla and mustiness.
However, that combination of scents does not simply arise through happenstance.
Traditionally printed books produce those smells as a result of the paper, ink, and glue that compose them. In their book Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez discuss this more eloquently, stating:
“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.”
In addition to enticing readers to enter bookshops and purchase reading materials, the scents have other applications as well. For instance, how strongly books smell can offer librarians hints as to whether or not a tome needs more preservation; books that are deep into the process of disintegration tend to smell mustier than books that aren’t.
Of course with ebooks, we readers don’t have access to that good old-fashioned book smell. I’m sure that some people appreciate the lack of scent, but for the rest of us, library scented candles are always an option.
For more reading about the science of book scents, check out the following links, and feel free to share if you have alternate descriptions of how books smell!
Images adapted from Compound Interest 2015, compoundchem.com.