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Drop me off at an old library, or antique bookstore, and I’ll be content for hours. Not only would I get lost amid the obscure and fascinating titles, but I’d savor each book, holding it in my hands and feeling the weight of it, breathing in the scent of ages past. I’ve always loved the smell of books, old and new. When a new shipment came to the bookstore, we’d open it in the backroom, pull out the hardcovers and sniff them. It’s probably a good thing everyone who worked there was a little odd and things like book-sniffing were not only accepted, but encouraged. Eventually, like most book lovers I know, I became curious. What made books smell? And, even more importantly, did everyone smell the same thing? Because often, my co-worker Shannon and I smelled different things. 

To answer the first question, you’re going to need a little science. I failed Chemistry, so I won’t even attempt to explain it here. I will list words I found during my research. Words like vanilla. And, uhm, vanilla. What happens is vanilla, and the other chemicals which aren’t so fun-sounding, break down over time and release the odors into the air. You can read up on all the science in the article ‘What Causes the Smell of New and Old Books?

The second question is more subjective, isn’t it? Because when you pick up a book, for the first time or the fiftieth time, you’re entering into a relationship with that book. And just like relationships, we bring baggage with us. So in addition to the external forces that have shaped that book–fires, floods, owners who smoke two and a half packs of Camels every day, or an owner who bathed in Glow by JLo–each reader also brings his or her own memories and experiences. One person can pick up a strong smell of wood smoke, which might really exist. But the reason he smells it so strongly is he remembers hiding under the chair in his father’s library for hours because he couldn’t stop reading until he found out if Jim Hawkins ever found the treasure, even though he’d already read the book at least a dozen times.  Another might think a book smells like coffee, and perhaps flipping through the pages reveals a number of old coffee rings, but this reader sees more than the rings. She remembers all the nights spent in a cafe reading because she couldn’t stand to sit night after night in an empty house after her husband died. Or the teenager who remembers hiding under a large oak tree in her backyard every summer to read and when she picks up an old book she swears she can still smell the grass.

Which means if you ask– Does everyone smell the same thing when they hold an old book? Or a New Book?

The answer is a resounding, ‘No.’

So what do people smell? I’ve run across the following answers:

  • Ink
  • Glue
  • Vanilla
  • Almonds
  • Mildew
  • Forgotten dreams
  • Dried grass
  • Smoke
  • Flowers
  • Moth balls
  • Old water
  • Childhood
  • Perfume
  • Coffee
  • Alcohol
  • My mother’s kitchen
  • The rain

Most of the time I tend to smell vanilla, grass, and every once in a while, the smell right before it rains. Maybe because those are also some of the strongest smells from my childhood, and that’s when I fell in love with books. But I’m sure there are more smells and if you’d like to share your own experiences, I’d love to read about them =).

4 thoughts on “What Do Books Smell Like?

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