The myth and magic behind that old book smell

13 September, 2012 2 comments Leave a comment

The smell of old books is something that people around the world have found comforting and beautiful for centuries. I'll be the first to admit that there really is something special about the smell of a library, it calms me. That being said, there has been a lot of information spread around over the past few years about why old books smell that simply isn't true. 

The Myth

 It never fails that every few months I see some variant of the picture below about why books smell. 

Myth about why books smell - Lignin Lie

This photo, whether it be posted by some overeager karma junky on Reddit, bedazzled and slapped on Facebook, or ripped off and quoted like Shakespeare. 

"Lignin, the stuff that prevents all trees from adopting the weeping habit, is a polymer made up of units that are closely related to vanillin. When made into paper and stored for years, it breaks down and smells good. Which is how divine providence has arranged for secondhand bookstores to smell like good quality vanilla absolute, subliminally stoking a hunger for knowledge in all of us."  - Perfumes: The Guide

My God, that is beautiful. The only problem is that this quote reads like most campaign speeches, a few key words scattered around nonsense and flattery. 

Where did this idea originate? 

The quote and the idea behind it are from the book, Perfumes: The Guide. Somewhere, in what I'm sure are wonderful pages, is this quote about a proposed perfume line based on the old book smell. This book has nothing to do with books, libraries, journalism, old prints, antiques, or really anything related to books, it's only real similarity is that it itself is a book. 

The book was written in 2008 by Tania Sanchez and while marketing and moving their way through the book-scene were able to land a few articles from the New Yorker, Slate, and then THIS gem by Dwight Garner from the Arts Beat section of the New York Times. The rest, is history.  

The Breakdown

Lignin - a complex chemical compound most commonly derived from wood, and an integral part of the secondary cell walls of plants and some algae. - Thanks Wikipedia

Lignin was derived from the latin: ligum, which means wood. It is one of the most abundant organic compounds on earth and while it does provide support to strengthen the wood, it's not what prevents all trees from adopting the "weeping habit."
Strike 1.
"a polymer made up of units that are closely related to vanillin."
Not really. Vanillin is an extract that is derived from the sulfite process. The sulfite process extracts the lignin from wood by using various salts and sulfites to create wood pulp and then the vanillin is further synthesized from the lignin. 
So yes, in a roundabout way, they are related. Much like you're related to your deceased great-great-great-great grandfather, chemically.
Strike 2.
"When made into paper and stored for years, it breaks down and smells good."
The pages of your book will break down when stored for years. Out of context, this sentence is completely true. However, the process of book pages breaking down organically is EXTREMELY complex and the complexity of the smells that can create coupled with environmental factors is even greater.  
Strike 3. 

The Truth, The Science

Yes, there is actual science concerning the smell of old books. Thanks to the great people at the Centre for Sustainable Heritage through The Bartlett School of Graduate Studies at University College London, we now have published proof what really makes up that smell. 


Here is the study: Material Degradomics: On the Smell of Old Books

So, what REALLY creates the smell of old books? 

That answer can be as complex as the books themselves. The researchers concluded that the acidity of the pages was one of the largest factors that contributed to the BREAKDOWN of books, but the smells themselves can come from a list of things.  

This list includes, but is by no means limited to:

  • Environmental factors
    • dust
    • moisture
    • light
    • handling
    • bacterial exposure
    • ...and many many more
  • Elemental factors
    • organic structure of page
    • acidity of pages
    • structure of ink used
    • ...and many many more
Personally, I think I love the smell because of what the smell represents. The smell is the library itself, stacks of books, knowledge, and the pursuit of something greater; and even though it may not be divine providence, it will always subliminally stoke the hunger for knowledge in me. 

How the quote should really be presented

I decided I would make my own. Feel free to bedazzle, OMG, and reminisce at will.  
One last source. I thought AbeBooks put together a really good little video on the topic. Check it out. 

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