There are few things on this earth that give me more comfort than walking into a second hand bookshop and smelling that sweet, musty odour of old books. I’m not alone in this either, a new term has been coined; bibliosmia – a beautiful word meaning the odour of books, from the Greek words for books and smell (and you’ll notice the namesake for this blog). An important part of the experience of reading books, bibliosmia is the sweet smell of nostalgia. Thousands of adventures passed down through the decades across countless pairs of hands, lingering in the quiet, still air of a bookshop (preferably with lots of corners, nooks and crannies in which one can get lost). It’s not hard to understand why, in an increasingly digital world, paper books still hold such an important place in our hearts. This is down not only to nostalgia and the familiarity of holding a physical book, but the science as to why books age with such a pleasant smell.
For me, the aroma is unmistakable; carrying notes of vanilla, almonds and chocolate, and as I live in Scotland and come from Ireland, always faintly of the rain. Other terms used to describe the smell however include body odour and rotten socks (not bibliophiles, I’m guessing). Walking into the Edinburgh Book Festival book shop just the other day, I was hit by the fresh smell of new books and the buzz of a festival. Don’t get me wrong, I love the smell of new books just as well, and while bibliosmia can of course be used to describe the satisfying smell of new books, of paper and ink fresh off the printing press, this made me think of my beloved second-hand bookshops and why the smell of old books is so distinctive.
The origin of the odour
As I alluded to previously, the books’ origins have their own story to tell. It is said that a dictionary owned by Mark Twain was tinted with the smell of tobacco. For me bookshops in Ireland and Scotland always have the faint smell of petrichor (the smell of soil after the rain), perhaps because I spend many a wet afternoon hiding away in old bookshops. Books bought at a Moroccan souk could carry the smells of leather, spices, rosemary and mint.
The science behind the scent
For some, the romantic notion of where a book has travelled from or lived its life is not enough in understanding why old books hold such an endearing aroma. In recent years a number of people have conducted experiments to understand the breakdown of chemicals which cause the distinctive scent of old tomes. A British chemistry teacher has produced an infographic explaining how the gradual breakdown of chemicals such as vanillin and benzaldehyde produce the smells of vanilla and almonds respectively. The UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage have produced a “historic book odour wheel”, aligning the chemicals in old books to people’s descriptions of them. Vanilla, chocolate, wood, the sea, are all scents that were cited in the study.
So, when choosing your next read in your local second-hand bookshop, take a wee minute to appreciate further the comforting aroma of the books in your midst. Its origins, previous owners, and gradual, slow decomposition all contribute to the experience of reading that book, beyond even the adventures written on its pages.