The smell of old books is something that book lovers can’t resist.
Have you ever had the unexplainable urge to crack open a book and inhale deeply? Maybe your nose is half an inch from the page, your eyes have closed, you’re breathing in that old and slightly magical musk of book pages.
You don’t know why it’s so good. But it is.
Maybe you tuck yourself behind some shelves in old bookstores and sniff the books surreptitiously when no one’s looking.
Or maybe you have no qualms about pressing your face to a book and whispering, “Oh, but I just love this smell.”
You’re not alone. Not even slightly. This is a bookworm rite!
The Smell of Old Books: A Perfect Recipe
We bookworms are notorious for so many things: like always having a book with us or collecting far more books than we have time to read or sniffing books.
But do you know what draws you to the smell of books? Old and new, they’re both delicious. And maybe they’re a little bit addictive to the heart and soul too.
So let’s break it down and find out why we’re obsessed with the smell of old books.
A Little Bit of Science…
First, let’s be factual. My bookish soul prefers to lunge straight to the whimsical reasons behind loving the act of sniffing books. But there are also genuine scientific explanations behind why we’re obsessed with the smell of old books, too.
As books age, they begin to break down, which is a pretty normal and expected reaction.
My bank account also has a break down when I try to insist it can afford another new hardcover release. So see? A typical reaction.
The compounds within paper start breaking down to produce chemical reactions (called “acidic hydrolysis”) and this gives a slightly sweet smell.
According to Science ABC’s research, the chemicals responsible for the smell of old paper are benzaldehyde, vanillin, ethyl hexanol, toluene, and ethyl benzene.
And yes! If you recognized the word “vanillin” there, that is indeed the primary component of the vanilla bean!
A study was done in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery where visitors did “blind testing” and smelled old books and were asked to describe them.
Chocolate actually got mentioned a lot! Potentially this is why settling down to read a good book also makes you want to eat a lot of chocolate.
(Or else, like me, you’re just looking for a good excuse to each chocolate, because you really really love it.)
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A Little Bit of Memory…
Linking good smells too positive memories is a common occurrence. And it may be why sniffing an old book makes your heart feel happy!
Being set loose in the library was one of my favorite traditions as a kid. We’d go in once a week and my siblings and I would all drift off to various shelves to find a new story.
I was always super shy as a kid, the child who never had to be told to stay in their parents’ sight because I was too anxious to stray far anyway.
But the library was my one exception.
Was I quiet and small? Yes. But I was also inexplicably bookish.
Put me in a library and I would take off. I’d explore rows of shelves, touching all the book spines and borrowing fearsome and gallant adventures.
A librarian once asked dubiously, “Are you going to be able to read all these before they’re due back?” Well, thank you for that challenge. But of course.
We didn’t go to bookstores often, since buying new was expensive and I had an enormous pile of siblings so we mostly bought second-hand things.
This meant I grew up around older books. Old paper, old ink, and old stories that never stop being infinitely exciting.
The smell of old books is so often linked to my memories. The contentment and satisfaction of childhood frequenting libraries has definitely made the smell of old books a joyous thing for me.
Now, as an adult, I still get this jolt of pure happiness when I enter a library. Partially because there are so many books and I really want to read them all, but partially because it smells good. Books feel good stacked in your arms. It’s like coming home.
Do you ever crack open a book and get that unexplained thrill down your spine too? Does your heart ever feel so full of that knowledge that you just really love books?
Reading seems like it is just a mental thing — your eyes looking at words on a page — but it’s also full of sensory wonders. The smell and feel of a book are as special to me as reading the story within the pages.
Capturing That Smell…
The true tragedy about the incredible smell of old books is that we can’t walk around with a book plastered to our faces all day. You’d walk into walls. You wouldn’t get much reading done either. Your family forgets your face.
But if there’s a smell, there’s someone out there muttering pensively, “I can make a candle for that.”
As Stephen King says, “Books are uniquely portable magic.” So their scents should be portable too.
New Versus Old Book Smells…
Of course, we cannot overlook the smell of new pages either!
Cracking open a new book and inhaling that crispness of fresh pages, of new ink, and binding and glue and thread is something altogether special in itself.
If you have allergies, the new book smell might be gentler on the senses than the musk of an old book.
And I always find there’s something special about knowing a book is new, fresh off the press, and here to find its footing in the world for the first time.
The smells and memories attached to new versus old books feel different for me.
One is nostalgia, one is future potential. But both remind me so avidly of what it is to be a bookworm and to be absolutely in love with books.
Books are equal parts lovely for their knowledge and their aesthetic qualities.
You know you’re a bookworm when one minute you’re reading, and then the next, you have that book pressed to your nose for a loving, deep inhale.
There’s nothing so good as the smell of old books.
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About the Author
CG Drews is a YA book blogger with the goal to read every book in existence. She’s aiming for immortality for this. When not reading, she writes novels and blogs at paperfury.com.