Scientists reveal why we really love the smell of old books

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Amy Swales
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While being well aware of the unstoppable march of technology and perfectly capable of acknowledging the convenience of e-books (grudgingly? Us? Never), there’s just something about books. Books with their lovely pages and covers and feel.

And smells, actually. Whether that sparkling fresh-from-the-bookshop newness or the delightfully musty scent that seems to have bottled the word ‘yellowing’, we cannot resist.

Subsequently, we often unwittingly find ourselves falling victim to tsundoku (yep, there’s a term for people like us) but if you’re the same, don’t worry – there’s been actual research on just why we can’t get enough of old books in particular.

And it might be because the smell reminds us of something else – arguably something equally close to our hearts.

A study from University College London’s Institute for Sustainable Heritage, published earlier this year in journal Heritage Science, detailed an experiment in which 79 visitors to a museum and art gallery were asked about their feelings on various smells without knowing what they were, such as a French novel from 1928, coal fire, dirty linen and even HP sauce.

Participants then filled out a survey which asked them to describe each smell – still in the dark about what they were. The most-cited scent for the book essence was chocolate, followed by coffee.

The study’s authors say that chocolate and coffee scents contain some of the same chemical compounds – known as VOCs – as found in decaying paper. Thus, it’s no wonder we find the smell of older books both familiar and appealing – though the team told Popular Science that the frequency of the identification was “surprising”.

“You tend to use familiar associations to describe smells when they are unlabelled,” scientist Cecilia Bembibre, a co-author, said. “And also, the VOCs of chocolate and coffee seem to be very similar to that of books. But it was still surprising to see that reference come up again and again.”

‘Chocolate’ was the most recurrent descriptor for the book, with 21 mentions from the 79 participants – going up to 27 if one counts similar words such as ‘cocoa’, ‘Cadbury’ and ‘chocolatey’. ‘Old’, ‘wood’ and ‘burnt’ were also used to describe it.

However the paper does point out that there may have been some influence from the exhibition the participants visited in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery prior to the questionnaire and the fact chocolate was one of the other unlabelled scents in the test.

The study found that participants had a different take on a whole room of books though – rather than an overwhelming chocolate smell, as one might expect, every single one described the environment of the library in St. Paul’s Cathedral as ‘woody’. Other popular words were ‘smoky’, ‘earthy’ and ‘vanilla’.

So we’ll basically take this as ‘not our fault the bookshelf has become the book floor/room/house’.

Image: Rex Features


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Amy Swales

Amy Swales is a freelance writer who likes to eat, drink and talk about her dog. She will continue to plunder her own life and the lives of her loved ones for material in the name of comedy, catharsis and getting pictures of her dog on the internet.