What Does The Scent of Books Reveal?

My Proustian madeleine is a piece of furniture. One of the first things I do when I arrive at our house in Poltava is to pry open the stubborn glass doors of the old bookcase and take a deep inhale. Even before I knew how to read, I loved smelling the leather bound volumes standing in neat rows on its shelves, so it’s true that my love of reading and my interest in aromas developed in tandem. Inside, the bookcase smells of vetiver roots, vanilla and sesame biscuits.

I’m not being whimsical with my descriptions, however. A ground breaking project by researchers at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage explored odor descriptions as they relate to the chemical composition of books and created a “historic book odor wheel” to link the scents with the aromatics present in decaying paper. It’s amazing to see how many aroma-molecules books and perfumes have in common, from limonene (zesty, lemon-line odor) to hexanal (freshly cut grass) and vanillin (sweet, vanilla).

As the Guardian reported, “the project originated in Strlič’s observation of the importance of smell to conservators and librarians. ‘Librarians have told us that it’s the smell that hits readers first. It’s the way libraries communicate, before people even get to the books; but what the books communicate through smell is also interesting. The idea is to propose a large theoretical framework of which smells hold cultural value for us as a society,’ he says.” Two researchers, Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič collected visitor descriptions of a historic book extract through a survey and conducted “a sensory evaluation at a historic library”.

Unlike the culinary arts and other intangible forms of cultural heritage, olfaction is ignored by organizations like UNESCO. Our past is presented as odorless. Discussions about aromas are reduced to commercial descriptions. The project by the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage adds an important corrective by giving us a richer understanding of smells in history and also examining what odors reveal about books.

Indeed, they reveal a lot. The scents of books tell us about the way they were manufactured, bound and treated. They can also pinpoint their age, since at different times a variety of techniques and treatments were used. Moreover, the study devises a vocabulary for describing the odors of books, and their aroma wheel is a useful tool.

If you’re interested in more details of the project, take a look at the paper published by Bembibre and Strlič in Heritage Science, Smell of heritage: a framework for the identification, analysis and archival of historic odours.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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46 Comments

  • JennyJo: L’Heure Bleue brings the smell of old books to me – and of other things in old houses – beeswax, wooden floors, and the scent of spring through big open windows. April 19, 2017 at 7:43am Reply

    • Victoria: Mitsouko also smells of old books to me, but the ultimate library scent is Etro Messe de Minuit.

      I love your description of L’Heure Bleue. April 19, 2017 at 9:36am Reply

      • JennyJo: Oh I’ll have to try that, thanks! April 24, 2017 at 4:43am Reply

    • Kris: I’ve always thought 31 Rue Cambon edt smelled like old books and warm wood. Like being in the most perfect library. April 19, 2017 at 1:17pm Reply

      • Victoria: Now I want to put it on and see what you mean. April 20, 2017 at 5:59am Reply

  • Judy: Another lovely, intelligent comment, Victoria — thank you!

    I’m sure you recall Luca Turin’s review of Dzing!, the L’Artisan fragrance that smells like paper, in which he writes: “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.” April 19, 2017 at 9:56am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, that’s it. Plus, other components used to make paper can contribute their own scent. Such a fascinating topic. April 19, 2017 at 12:45pm Reply

    • Lydia: I love that. “Subliminally stoking a hunger for knowledge in all of us.” 🙂 April 19, 2017 at 2:10pm Reply

      • Victoria: I also love that sentence. April 20, 2017 at 6:01am Reply

    • Joy: I have noticed that bookstores that sell old books smell like vanilla. Thank you for this explanation. April 19, 2017 at 3:23pm Reply

  • Jillie: Iris and vanilla often smell like old books and cardboard to me. As a little girl I loved it when my parents visited antique furniture shops with me in tow and I was astounded by all the different odours emanating from leather couches, faded velvet curtains, mottled rugs and those piles of ancient books – mould, dust, polish. The air was thick with unfamiliar scents. April 19, 2017 at 9:59am Reply

    • Victoria: I love those stores precisely for their scents. April 19, 2017 at 12:45pm Reply

      • Victoria: By the way, Frederic Malle Une Fleur de Cassie smells like wet paper to me, pleasantly so. April 19, 2017 at 12:46pm Reply

  • Jeanne: I love the smell of old books, even my old paperbacks. It makes reading a book on my iPad a little less satisfying when I can’t open that first page and enjoy the scent. April 19, 2017 at 10:07am Reply

    • Victoria: I use my iPad a lot for reading, especially when I travel, but nothing compares to reading a real book. I miss the sensory pleasures in an electronic version, even if I enjoy its convenience. April 19, 2017 at 12:47pm Reply

      • Lydia: I was horrified to discover that some book companies are publishing select books in electronic form only. (NYRB Classics has a few, although I’m hoping they’ll eventually release them in paperback as well.)

        I’m torn about it because I love trees, but I love paper books as well. April 19, 2017 at 2:15pm Reply

        • Victoria: I’ve seen that too, especially in the EU. I know that many don’t want books around, because they take up space and are heavy to move, but I don’t feel that I own a book if it’s an electronic format. April 20, 2017 at 6:02am Reply

          • Lydia: I feel like that too. I like the weight and texture of books, as well as the smell, and I enjoy the long, colorful line of them on my bookshelves. April 20, 2017 at 4:34pm Reply

            • Victoria: A few years ago I did tidying up in my house according to Marie Kondo’s book, but getting to the part about hiding books or disposing of them, I knew that I’d rather dispose of Marie Kondo’s tome (something she’s ok with!) April 22, 2017 at 2:52am Reply

              • Lydia: I so agree! I was enjoying her guide until I came to her advice about books, and then I thought, “This woman doesn’t really love books if she thinks it’s OK to just tear out your favorite pages and dispose of the rest!”

                I am OK with having my own library – it definitely enhances my quality of life and sparks joy every day. 🙂 April 24, 2017 at 2:58pm Reply

                • Victoria: I don’t get that at all. Seeing books around me makes me happy. April 26, 2017 at 1:32pm Reply

  • Karen 5.0: Another thought-provoking post! And I agree with Jeanne above: the physical pleasures of reading, holding, and smelling a book add to the overall enjoyment. You can’t get this from a screen.

    Aside from the properties of the paper, ink, binding, cover, and glue, I’ve also been able to occasionally detect other aromas/odors such as tobacco (it is sometimes fun to imagine the person who read the riveting mystery book before you chain-smoking furiously to get to the end), perfumes, mildew/mold (as if the book had been read by a lake or at the beach) and even food odors! April 19, 2017 at 10:34am Reply

    • Victoria: I once watched a Japanese documentary on people who collect used books and especially the copies with marginalia. I once bought a book that had someone love poems in the margins. April 19, 2017 at 12:49pm Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: After reading only one book on my iPad years ago, I went right back to reading the actual book. There is just something about turning the pages of a book…the smell of the ink and paper and the anticipation of the written word. April 19, 2017 at 12:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: That’s why I love picking a book out of my grandmother’s bookcase to read during my stay. The scent is so evocative. April 19, 2017 at 12:50pm Reply

  • Lily: I once spent an airplane ride with my nose literally buried in a book Bc a nearby passenger had a seriously cloying perfume on that was making me nauseated. The scent of paper and ink have never been so wonderful, before or since, and I love library and bookstore smells as much as the next writer.

    How fascinating to see that the chemical compositions are actually similar and that it’s not just our nose-brain making the closest comparison it can find. April 19, 2017 at 12:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: Their paper also contains a nifty odor wheel (the link is above), which might be helpful for both the perfume and book lovers. April 19, 2017 at 12:51pm Reply

  • Lydia: I love this post, and I’m amazed by the detailed breakdown of notes in it.

    Before the real estate boom, NYC used to be filled with many second-hand bookstores and antique stores. Strand Books is one of the the very last still standing. Additionally, our apartment was lined with bookcases full of old hardcover books, so the smell of old book glue and paper is the smell of childhood to me.

    DSH’s Cathedral evokes the fragrance of old books in a room filled with incense. It has opponax and myrrh, but also something sweet like vanilla, and there’s something that gives it a sharp smell like mildew or rotting wood – but in a good way. When I wear it, I picure the back room of an abandoned, country church with old, decaying books on a half-collapsed bookcase. It’s a story inside a scent.

    Another book smell I found really compelling in childhood was a 1972 edition of a YA fantasy novel called Breed to Come by Andre Norton. I loved the smell – a strangely sour, sharp, but earthy, odor like no other book binding I’d come across – as much as the story. It matched the post-apocalyptic world of the story, technology abandoned and overgrown. (I’m sure if I knew more about the history of book printing in the US, I’d be able to identify the particular glue that gives it that distinctive smell.) April 19, 2017 at 1:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: I agree on DSH’s Cathedral. It does evokes the smell of books.

      I once read that the US printing in the 70s-80s, especially for mass-produced paperbacks, used a particular kind of paper that degrades quickly. It has a peculiar sour, acid scent. April 20, 2017 at 6:00am Reply

      • Lydia: That’s interesting. Many of my paperbacks from those decades have come apart – the glue crumbled and the spines split.
        It’s happened to some of my hardcovers as well. It’s too bad when hardcover book pages are glued rather than sewn. April 21, 2017 at 2:22am Reply

        • Victoria: This happened to some books I bought recently. Especially if the pages are glued straight in, they will usually come off. April 22, 2017 at 2:53am Reply

  • Henry: Thanks for sharing! 🙂 April 19, 2017 at 2:28pm Reply

    • Victoria: You’re welcome, Henry. Do take a look at the study itself. April 20, 2017 at 6:03am Reply

  • Joy: A particular reason I love your articles, one among many, is that they often trigger a memory from my youth. Reading your article today, I suddenly remembered the closet under the stairs in my grandmother’s home in Montana. There were shelves of leather bound books from which I had endless summer reading. There were also a guitar and a violin stored in the cliset. The shelves, violin, and guitar gave the room a woody note. I also think the guitar strings gave off a slight metallic scent. There were many shoe boxes filled with old photos that gave off a slight chemical smell, not unpleasant. I had totally forgotten that closet until now.
    Thank you for another memory! April 19, 2017 at 3:37pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for sharing! Such a beautiful image. April 20, 2017 at 6:03am Reply

  • aurora: How wonderful to have a favourite old bookcase, I can just imagine you smelling it. To me it’s Timbuktu that conjures old books perhaps because I know there is a legendary library there and that Timbuktu contains papyrus. April 20, 2017 at 8:01am Reply

    • Victoria: Such a great association! April 22, 2017 at 2:49am Reply

  • Yankiel: Stunning picture. Thank you for such a gift! April 20, 2017 at 1:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: You’re most welcome! April 22, 2017 at 2:50am Reply

  • Marilyn stanonis: Victoria, after I read your thoroughly engrossing essay about the scent of books, I went back through your previous posts until I found the picture I remembered. It is surely the bookcase that you describe in “the scent of books”. It is from September 2014 (I think), and describes your grandmother’s house, with accompanying photographs. It is one of my favorite Bois de Jasmine posts! Thank you for bringing it before us again! April 21, 2017 at 8:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Marilyn. Yes, that’s the same bookcase. There might even be a picture of it. April 22, 2017 at 3:20am Reply

  • Amy McLaughlin: What an especially stunning picture, and a fascinating piece. I find the smell of books, a scent of vanilla, wood and dust, to be deeply comforting. And I just happened to read this earlier today, in St. Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars: “Moving from one room to the next I inhaled in passing that incense of an old library which is worth all the perfumes of the world.” April 23, 2017 at 7:16pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for this quote! April 26, 2017 at 1:04pm Reply

      • Amy McLaughlin: My pleasure! April 26, 2017 at 4:43pm Reply

  • Carla: This is such an interesting post and yet what stands out for me is the image of you running to the cupboard to inhale it all in. I still remind myself to smell everything I can in order to get more out of life. Modern living is so focused on the visual – and so loud – we forget the other senses. Smell, taste and touch should not be forgotten. April 23, 2017 at 8:25pm Reply

    • Victoria: Very true. But I also fear that in the rush we don’t pay attention to any of our senses enough. April 26, 2017 at 1:06pm Reply

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