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