Stoking a Hunger: The Scent of a Book


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!

CompoundChem: What Causes the Smell of New and Old Books?

The Smithsonian Mag: That Old Book Smell

Material Degradomics: On the Smell of Old Books


This article was originally posted September 18, 2016.

50 thoughts on “Stoking a Hunger: The Scent of a Book

    1. Thank you! That is very kind of you. I hope I get the chance to answer some of those questions because I enjoyed reading your answers. (And if you ever want to share some of your bizarre experiences regarding reincarnation, I’d love to hear more. I find that kind of thing fascinating.)

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Now that’s what I call a highly original post – well done.
        On a slightly different note, a friend once told me that her daughter wouldn’t buy second hand books because of ‘where they’d been’. Presumably some unsavoury aspects were being thought of here. A topic for another time, but food for thought ;>)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you!

        I have also seen people shudder at the thought of used books – I think one person had visions of bedbugs dancing across the pages – so there is certainly some contention about them. The life cycle of a used book is probably a very curious thing.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Fascinating post, Kristen! Old books – and some new ones too – definitely have a ‘special’ scent and yes, it does spur on the desire to buy the books and read on! Intrigued there is an actual scientific study on this though. For us mere mortals often reading on Kindle maybe the Library Scented Candles are the way to go!😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When my copies of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings arrived in the mail (in the early 70s), they exuded a kind of petroleum smell that must have been the ink. Not a perfume, exactly, but I associate it with entering the world of Middle Earth and to this day a whiff of a smell like that brings back that old delight. The room in which I wrote my novels contains a lot of elderly paperbacks that make it smell like a used bookstore. Entering that room to resume writing was like going into a church.

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  3. The library candles sound interesting but I prefer the scent of a new book and love fanning the pages under my nose – just as I love the scent of fresh hay being baled. That’s not to say I don’t love the smell of old books, even musty ones, just not so much.

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    1. There is something extraordinary about the scent of fresh, unadulterated ink. I’m sure bookstore employees have caught me sniffing new books before. (I like to tell myself that they are used to people doing that.)


    1. My pleasure! I suspect some of the candles are better than others. (And that none of them truly capture the scent of books.) If you test any out, you’ll have to report back and let me know how you find them!


  4. So the year was long enough ago that the bookstore was called Labyrinth. I was upstairs. Deep into the M section of the department of fiction. I was reading away, smelling that smell we are all here commenting on. For some reason this book, yellowed from baking in the sun, was giving off a rather strong, pleasant smell. It was a private moment, a existential moment where the words on the page didn’t quite hold any meaning, they were just there. I was more taken with the smell. So I slid my nose deeply in the crevice of the pages. I inhaled a mouth full, my lungs saturating the very essence of those pages. It was pure joy. I’m using descriptive language only to emphasis what happened next. I had a sense in that moment that I was actually not alone at all. I look over and there is this woman, peering at me, the look something along the lines of when someone has farted. She didn’t understand and it seemed misunderstood my moment with this book. In the end. I have no regrets.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, my gosh! That is wonderful.

      One of the wonderful results of my time working in libraries is that few things people do around books surprise me any more.

      …On second thought, maybe that isn’t such a good thing. Ah, well.


    1. Oh, feeling the pages can be grand. It’s fascinating how drastically the production of books can vary. Publishers use such different weights and textures of paper depending on the type of book. Details like that can certainly alter a book’s “ambiance”.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I used to have a candle called ‘Secret Library and Writer’s Den’ by Columbia Candles. Gorgeous. It smelled almost chocolately, but not sweet. It was a nice subtle fragrance. I really liked it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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