3 Reasons Why Booknerds Love the Smell of Books

LL2Dear Literary Lady,
Non-Reader here, asking about something I’ve always found weird: Why do people smell old books?
–T.N., San Diega, CA

Dear T.N.,

Oh. Oops. We readers didn’t think people noticed that we were discreetly sniffing the well-thumbed pages of our favorite novels. We thought we were hiding our olfactory indulgences by pretending to scratch our noses with our books, or pretending to fan ourselves with the pages of our book, or pretending we were practicing our deep meditative breathing while reading.

Even though sniffing a book is a strange thing to do in public, the truth is lots of readers smell their books in the privacy of their own homes. I know. It sounds funny. We don’t talk about it with each other, but I assure you almost all bookworms crack open a book on the regular and a try to catch a whiff of the pages.

People smell books because old books smell good, and there are a few scientific (and non-scientific) reasons for that:

1. There’s chemistry in the air
Books are made up of paper, adhesive, and ink. When these materials degrade over time, they give off organic volatile compounds, which in turn produce a smell that’s appealing to readers. The reason the smell is so appealing may be because it has a hint of vanilla. The scientific explanation for the vanilla-ish scent is that almost all wood-based paper contains lignin, which is closely related to vanillin.

2. It’s a remembrance of things past
The smell of books might actually remind you of things. The olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, which is associated with memories and feelings. When you first smell a new scent, your brain links the smell with an event, a person, a thing, or a moment. When you smell the same scent again, your brain conjures up the linked memory. It may not always be an explicit memory, it could just be an emotion or a feeling.

3. Books remind people of all good things
Now for an utterly unscientific, sweeping generalization: books are the absolute best-smelling thing in the world, because books appeal to explicit and implicit memory. Books always remind people of wonderful moments they’ve experienced, and they make people feel inexplicably, emotionally good. I’ve had friends tell me the smell of books makes them feel calm and safe, as if they’re in a sanctuary, because they’re reminded of their school library. Other people say the smell of books fills them with anticipation, because they’re reminded of the stories they eagerly awaited as children. I’ve heard the smell of books is comforting because it reminds people of being warm, curled up, and relaxed. I’ve even heard the smell of books is liberating, because it harks back to moments of free, uninterrupted, leisure time.

For me, the best smell in the world is my battered, tearstained copy of Where the Red Fern Grows from childhood. You know that feeling you get when you’re just about to experience an old favorite? When you’re about to bite into a favorite dish, or run your favorite trail, or sleep in your own bed after being away from home? That’s what that book will always smell like to me.

Love and paperbacks,
Literary Lady

  • Susanne

    Soooo….what book is that in the picture?

    • Karsten El Pelirrojo

      Tiny Pretty Things, by Charaipotra and Clayton.

  • Kimbrely A Vickers-Dunning

    Red Fern always makes me cry but also makes me think of home. I first read it when we lived in Japan. So talking of Talequah which is close to home gave me a warm fuzzy feeling.

  • http://www.nolaaunaturel.blogspot.com/ Shantel C

    This is sooo funny. I had a stranger come up to me and ask me if I just smelled my book. Cold busted.

  • Shasha Andrews

    Well, I love the fact that I’m not alone in book sniffing! I love old and new books!! Ahhhh! Yum!

  • Alicia Swedenburg

    If the world ever goes completely over to Ebooks it will be a sad day….kids growing up without ever knowing that smell…. 🙁

  • C. Mitchell

    People try to hide it? Not me, I walk into a used book store and take a big ole whiff, just like I do in a bakery and it feels goooooood 😉

  • Kathy Ree

    Oh my–I just love the smell of books, old or new. I have another weird habit–riffling the pages with my thumb, over and over again. I even do this at church with the hymnal and prayerbook. I don’t know why…

    • Trista

      Hey I don’t know if you can see my comments but I’m doing a research on if smell of books shapes our reading experience. Can I interview you if you don’t mind?

  • Thomas Wagner

    Another reason why, even though I love my Kindle, it’s “just not the same,” and I still buy books in their classic, ink and paper format.

  • Sherrie

    New books smell good too. I love the smell of all books, old and new. It’s my aroma therapy, and is something you can only get from real (printed) books. Who wants to smell a Kindle???

    • Trista

      Hi Sherrie this is Trista from University of College London. I’m doing a essay on if smell of books shapes our reading experience, do you mind if I interview you?

  • karen

    I love the smell of walking into a book store, library, or especially an old book sale. I know I must look strange when I first walk in and stand there with a goofy grin and just take a big whiff of book filled air. Nothing makes me as happy. 🙂 ah but I also love the smell of very old houses

  • Katy

    I particularly love the smell of new books. I drove by a bindery once, and it smelled amazing. I also once bought a book that was made-to-order, and it had been printed two days before. It was dizzying.

    • Trista

      Hey Katy this is Trista. I’m doing a research on if smell of books shapes our reading experience. Can I interview you if you don’t mind?

      • Katy

        Yeah, sure, why not?

        • Trista

          Thank you so much!! Do you prefer we do it here or via email?

          • Katy

            Here would be fine. (I don’t want to put my e-mail up for all the world to see.)

          • Trista

            haha right. I will come up with a set of questions soon. Thank you so much for your time Katy!

          • Trista

            Hi Katy, here are three questions

            1. Why do you like the smell of books? Is it just natural instinct just as people like the smell of bacon or does it remind you of something from your memory?

            2. In the article it mentions that people try to conceal their sniffing in public or hide their affection toward the aroma of books, does it happen to you? why or why not?

            3. How do you feel about kindle and ebooks?

            I hope that’s not too much for you. Your time is much appreciated! Do you want me to quote you directly or do you prefer to be anonymous on my essay? Thanks a lot!

          • Katy

            1. Well, it smells really, really good. But why it smells good is because of the memories. Not a lot of specific ones, but the general way books have always made me feel.

            2. Nope. I’m a book-sniffer and proud. To me, there’s no shame in it. It’s what I like, and that’s perfectly okay. (Though there was that awkward incident involving a brand-new workbook in the middle of my English class…)

            3. Well, I read on a Kindle for YEARS, and only in the past year and a half have I started reading more on print books. It’s not the same, but it’s cheaper, and more portable. You can have hundreds of books in your pocket, and that’s really amazing.

            Sorry if you needed more detail! And it’s perfectly fine to use my name. Hope this was helpful!:-)

          • Trista

            This is perfect!! Millions of thanks! Have a nice day and Happy New Year.

  • Wendy Carrero

    I really enjoy when I’m reading and smelling my books. Is the best experience in the world.

  • NetG

    I’ve only ever smelt old hymnals in churches. Do you find that old books smell the same as these or do you find hymnals to have a unique scent? Book stores around here only sell new books so I can’t go research 🙁

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