There’s just something about the scent of old books that entices your olfactory senses. There is actually a specific reason why these dusty pages actually smell good to bookworms. But did you know what makes them smell the way they are?
The “Old Book” smell is created by an organic material called lignin. It is a chemical found in wood-based paper that generates a subtle vanilla aroma when it breaks down over time.
What is the Source of the Old Book Smell?
The smell is basically a chemical reaction, and the chemistry of old books gives off appeal to certain people. The chemical components in books that originate from the glue, paper, and ink, begin to break down as they age. These then emit volatile chemicals, which then cause the smell we are familiar with. According to the International League for Antiquarian Booksellers, a whiff of vanilla is a familiar smell of old books: Lignin, which is present in all wood-based paper, is closely related to vanillin. The lignin in old books gives them a slight vanilla aroma as it breaks down. (Source: The Smithsonian Magazine)
Paper, ink, glue, and the fibers are virtually exclusively biological components in books. Over time, all of these components react to light, heat, moisture, and even each other, releasing various Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs). While the specific compounds emitted by each book are dependent on the exact things that went into manufacturing it and the materials used.
The researchers looked through 72 novels and discovered 15 chemicals that appeared repeatedly. They were dependable deterioration indicators. Acetic acid, benzaldehyde, butanol, furfural, octanal, methoxyphenyl oxime, and more compounds with amusing names are among them. The smell of a book is also influenced by the environment and materials it comes into contact with throughout its existence, which is why some books have hints of cigarette smoke, others smell a little like coffee, and still others, cat dander. (Source: Mental Floss)
How Do New Books Smell Like?
The scent of new books is often caused by three factors: the paper, which smells pleasant due to the chemicals used in its creation, the ink used to print the book, and the adhesives used in the binding process.
When we examine the fragrance of paper, we can see that many chemicals are utilized in its production, although it is manufactured mainly from wood pulp. Additionally, certain chemicals, such as sodium hydroxide are added to the paper to reduce the acidity and swelling of the wood pulp fibers. (Source: Science ABC )
Why Do People Love the Smell of Old Books?
Most of what we smell are volatile organic compounds, which books emit as they degrade. At the University College London, researchers extracted its VOCs from a 1928 French novel they found at a used bookstore. Volunteers sniffed book extracts and seven unnamed aromas ranging from chocolate and coffee to fish market and soiled linen. Following that, participants completed a survey in which they were asked to describe the smell of the antique book.
Moreover, a third of the 79 participants thought the old book extract reminded them of chocolate without knowing what they were smelling. According to a study published in Heritage Science, coffee was the second most commonly mentioned aroma. (Source: Reader’s Digest)