Kay: What Does Your Book Smell Like?

Extracting the smell of an 18th century Bible in the Spangled Bedroom at Knole House. National Trust/James Dobson

I’ve just returned from a trip to my home state, where I engaged in a lot of high-powered thrift store shopping, my cousin’s favorite sporting activity. I don’t buy very much on these excursions, because whatever I purchase has to be either shipped or schlepped back to California, a transaction that depresses the carefree, low-risk joy of the acquisition.

But I’m always in the market for reading material, so when I’m in a thrift shop, I check out the books. The prices at these stores can’t be beat, and often there’s something I can be tempted by.

The biggest problem with books at thrift shops (compared to used book stores, which are a whole different kettle of fish) is that you never know where those books have been. People clean out their attics, their basements, their garages, their fishing shacks, and their out houses, and they haul all that stuff to the thrift store. These books can literally stink. Mold, mildrew, rot, dust, dog pee, it’s all there to a greater or lesser extent.

And now let me tell you, my friends, that scientists are out there cataloging these smells.

Cecilia Bembibre, heritage scientist, and Matija Strlic, an analytical chemist at University College London, have been capturing, analyzing, and cataloging scents. They began by asking visitors to the Dean and Chapter library of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to describe the smell of the place, and they compiled the results in a document they call the Historic Book Odour Wheel.

The visitors most frequently described the aroma of the library as woody (selected by 100% of the visitors), followed by smoky (86%), earthy (71%) and vanilla (41%). More than 70% of the visitors described the smell as pleasant, 14% as mildly pleasant and 14% as neutral.

In a separate experiment, the researchers presented visitors to the Birmingham (UK) Museum and Art Gallery with an unlabeled 1928 book found in a second-hand bookshop in London. The word chocolate—or variations such as cocoa or chocolatey—were used most often, followed by coffee, old, wood, and burnt. However, study participants also mentioned smells including fish, body odor, rotten socks, and mothballs. This would be more like my thrift-shop experience.

Where do the smells of old books come from? Assuming it’s not the garage.

“Old book smell” is generated by the chemicals used in bookmaking as they break down the cellulose and lignin in paper. This action produces volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The different scents are created by different chemicals. For example, benzaldehyde adds an almond-like scent, and ethyl hexanol has a “slightly floral” scent. To build the The Historic Book Odour Wheel, the research team sampled and analyzed the volatile VOCs of the books.

Scents should be preserved for their historic value so that they can be recreated when the worlds they came from are lost, the researchers say. In addition, the Historic Book Odour Wheel could be used as a diagnostic tool by conservators, informing on the condition of an object—for example, its state of decay—through its olfactory profile. Bembibre envisions that the wheel could also be used to recreate smells and aid the design of olfactory experiences in museums.

The team has moved on to collect aromas from Knole House, a National Trust country house in Kent, which was the childhood home of the novelist Vita Sackville-West.

That’ s a long way from the thrift-shop book shelves of the upper Midwest, but it sure explains the smells. Moldy socks and all.

5 thoughts on “Kay: What Does Your Book Smell Like?

  1. LOL, that’s great! I like old-book smell unless it’s out-right moldy. I have a few rescued from a housefire that smell a little bit toasty, even though it must be almost 30 years later . . . those give me a twinge when I read them.

    Your post triggered a childhood memory. It’s not very accurate, but I think my mom told me about kids catchiing Dread Diseases, and having to have their books burned, but some of the books managed to escape that fate — only to infect Perfectly Healthy Kids with the Dread Diseases. (-: Certainly lent a little frisson to my reading life as a kid. I wasn’t going to give up borrowed books, but I often wondered if I was going to catch something awful from one of them. My feelings were half fear, but half wonder that such story might happen to little ol’ me. Kids are weird, and I think I may safely say, I was a little weirder than average.

    • I wonder if the Parental Warning was to keep you from a particular book or type of book—or some other reason? I can’t imagine what disease we could get from used books, can you? Great story, though!

      • Oh, no. My parents were extremely liberal in our access to books. If we wanted cartoons, we had to buy that with our own money, but otherwise, their wallets were relatively open, and anything on the shelves (home or library) was fair play. I think it was just a family story that caught at our imaginations. How creepy! I believe the story was about Scarlet Fever or possibly smallpox. I ran across an article many years ago that said that people did burn all the belongings of people with some sort of infectious disease because the disease was so horrible, and nobody wanted to run the risk of spreading it, even if it meant goodbye clothes, sheets and books.

  2. I love the idea of the Historic Book Odour Wheel. I’ve often wished when buying second-hand books online that there was some kind of smell rating along with the “pages bent” or “cover creased” notes. There’s nothing like the anticipation of a book, only to have it arrive smelling like the inside of an ashtray.

    • Isn’t that the truth? I bought a book once from a thrift shop when I had a cold and couldn’t smell the mold on it. It was a terrific book, and I finished it. But by the end, when I’d recovered from the cold, I had to take meds for asthma to read the last few chapters.

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