The Science Behind the Smell of Old Books

What’s so pleasant about that old books smell? Abebooks has a delightful video which attempts to demystify the redolence of old books:

From the video: “A physical book is made up of organic matter that reacts with heat, light, moisture, and most importantly of all, the chemicals used in its production. And it is this unique reaction that causes the unique used books smell …

Chemists at University College, London have investigated the old book odor and concluded that old books release hundreds of volatile organic compounds into the air from the paper. The lead scientist described the smell as ‘A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.’”

The Atlantic (“What Is That ‘Old Books Smell’? Chemistry Has Answers”) read my mind on this one, mentioning Super Sad True Love Story, a depressingly fun satire about our possible near-future —

“Then I celebrated my Wall of Books. I counted the volumes on my twenty-foot-long modernist bookshelf to make sure none had been misplaced or used as kindling by my subtenant. “You’re my sacred ones,” I told the books. “No one but me still cares about you. But I’m going to keep you with me forever. And one day I’ll make you important again.” I thought about that terrible calumny of the new generation: that books smell.”

But, old books are decidedly uncool in Gary Shteyngart’s near future, so that old book smell is Pine Sol-ed into oblivion in order to impress some girl. Figures.

The Telegraph — “The smell of old books analysed by scientists” — has more on the science behind the old books smell at University College London.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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