Released: June 19, 2013

The science of “the smell of books”

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“Age appears to be best in four things—old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read.” (Source)

Last year I wrote about the smell of books, and the peculiar attachment that even e-book readers often have to that particular physical property. Today I ran across a post on Smithsonian Magazine’s blog that delves deeper into the science behind print’s smell:

As a book ages, the chemical compounds used—the glue, the paper, the ink–begin to break down. And, as they do, they release volatile compounds—the source of the smell. A common smell of old books, says the International League for Antiquarian Booksellers, is a hint of vanilla: “Lignin, which is present in all wood-based paper, is closely related to vanillin. As it breaks down, the lignin grants old books that faint vanilla scent.”

Whether their digital counterparts “smell like burned fuel” (as author Ray Bradbury put it), the bouquet of old books is certainly hard to replicate; the Smithsonian post quotes a scientist involved in a 2009 study describing the smell of old books as “[a] combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness,” sounding more like something you might find in a wine cellar than a library.

Discarded Books, Recovered Nostalgia
By Kerry Mansfield. From “Discarded Books, Recovered Nostalgia” – New York Times

Update: The New York Times’s Lens blog has a beautiful slideshow of old discarded library books (above):

. . . [W]hile books may not necessarily make for a better reading experience, they are superior as subject matter for a photo project. (I defy you, dear reader, to find a loving portrait of a Nook.)

To wit, witness Kerry Mansfield’s “Expired,” a series whose substance is the physicality of discarded and withdrawn library books. She brings the lens in close, showing worn edges and torn covers and photographing the ephemera of the library experience: the check-out cards and the paper pockets they went into, for example. She includes beloved titles like Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Dr. Seuss’s “Hop on Pop,” but also obscure ones like Evelyn Sibley Lampman’s “The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek.”

In addition to some gorgeous photography, it includes this challenge: “I defy you, dear reader, to find a loving portrait of a Nook.” Dear readers, if you find such portraits, please let us know!

Do you love—or hate—the smell of old print books? If you read e-books, how does the experience of e-reading compare to reading in print? Head on over to our Facebook page and let us know!