November 18, 2019
I love the smell of old books in the morning… smells like… book preservation
by Athena Bryan
Ahhh, the smell of old books. Something people love to brag about loving. (Why yes, we’ve gotten product recommendations for old-book-scented soy candles on a certain Internet megastore that shall remain nameless here. What can we say—we just happen to love books, and the whole Internet knows it. Guilty as charged!)
But what is the smell, really? And … is there an interesting blog post to be had about it?
To address the first question, pages in older books are usually composed of wood, which includes a material called lignin (pronounced like “linen” only with a “g” in the middle). According to Zee Krstic, writing for marthastewart.com, lignin-based pages can allegedly throw off the scent of “vanilla [….] almonds, caramel, and chocolate” as they age due to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that sublimate from solid to gas over time.
We’re not so sure about those olfactory reference points, or at least, we take them with the same grain of salt we do sommelier notes. For our part, we believe that having been codified in candle form, we are allowed to say that old books smell like old books. (A cutesy tautology already! And we haven’t even gotten to the point of the blog post yet! Off to a good start today!)
So, on to why on earth we’re talking about the smell of old books here. Apparently, a team of researchers in Portugal at the University of Aveiro have now designed an “electronic nose” that can determine if books are degrading or not, regardless of the composition (traditional old-book-smell-y lignin or otherwise) and regardless of what stage of degeneration. The nose can detect both what material was used to make the paper and indicate whether the book is degenerating—a boon to archivists amidst seas of bookshelves who can now determine which books need intervention without so much as cracking a spine.
And that’s the news folks. Your blogger’s main take-away is a new mental image in her brain of a Terminator-like android version of Gogol’s nose-man, wheeling around some Borgesian library, sussing out rotten books as an Old Books-flavored soy candle burns quietly on an end-table. And that, folks, is why you shouldn’t bother reading to the end of blog posts. Nothing to see here. Move along.
Athena Bryan is an editor at Melville House.