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The Chemistry Of Old Books: Why They Smell So Good

Posted by: Shopgirl, on: Tuesday, 03 February 2015

Have you ever held an old, almost crumbling, book in your hand? Have you felt the delicate paper, unresisting as you turn the pages? Did you ever hold it close to your nose, closed your eyes, and simply inhaled the scent?

A book, whether new or old can have its distinct scent. This reason alone is enough to steer me away from e-books. E-books do not offer you the entirely irreplaceable experience of reading a book.

Science fiction author Ray Bradbury couldn’t have said it any better. He says, "A computer does not smell... if a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better... And it stays with you forever. But the computer doesn't do that for you. I'm sorry."

A new book smell can be exciting. It’s the promise of new journey. A promise of meeting new characters and experiencing a wholly new world.

Old books, on the other hand, take you back. It brings you memories of a cold evening spent lounging in a couch, or a childhood summer spent under a tree, reading, exploring, and discovering. It becomes a nostalgic reminder of what was once new and a chance to rediscover it over and over again.

But what is it about old books that can become so reminiscent of days gone by?

Grassy notes and vanilla

There was a study done in 2009 that looked into the origins of the scent of old books. Scientists discovered that the complex scent was a combination of “hundreds of so-called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released into the air from the paper,” says the Telegraph.

Matija Strlic, the lead scientist behind the 2009 study, describes the smell of an old book as, “A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness, this unmistakable smell is as much a part of the book as its contents.”

Ink, paper and adhesive

Papers, adhesives, and inks are manufactured differently. As such, books can differ not only in content, but also in physical materials. This can make it difficult to pinpoint just one or several components that cause the scent.

However different though these books may be, there are three important components that contribute to (new or old) book smell. It is the ink used, the paper involved, and the bookbinding adhesives. Various chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and hydrogen peroxide are used to manufacture paper. As these cause reactions with the other chemicals in the paper, VOCs are released into the air.

Remember though, that chemicals used may not always be the same. Depending on the manufacturer, books may differ in chemical processes, paper treatments, and of course, bookbinding adhesives employed. Hence, this is the reason why new books smell completely different.

The science of old book smell

Recently, a chemistry teacher from the UK, Andy Brunning, created an infographic on the science behind the smell of old books, and even new ones.

He says that old books smell the way they do simply because of the chemical breakdown of the compounds within the paper. Paper, amongst other components, is made up of cellulose and lignin. Both of which come from trees. Both of which, it must be noted, are used less in modern books.

Lignin acts like a glue to bind the cellulose fibres together, making paper more rigid and sturdier. This is also the reason why old papers yellow with age – oxidation reactions cause it to be broken down into different organic compounds.

Brunning says, “These reactions, referred to generally as ‘acid hydrolysis,’ produce a wide range of volatile organic compounds, many of which are likely to contribute to the smell of old books.

According to Brunning, there are some compounds that contribute to this, including benzaldehyde, vanillin, and ethyl benzene. The first one adds the smell similar to almonds; the second one adds the smell of vanilla; the third one causes the sweet odours. Moreover, the ethyl hexanol is responsible for the floral smell. Apart from these, some alcohols and aldehydes contribute.

Wonderful, old book smells cannot be attributed to just one thing. There are different varieties of chemicals and components that go into creation of these scents. But whatever they are, the fragrances they produce are as unique (to each person) as the words they contain.

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