I learned a new word this week-petrichor, which describes …
the smell of rain in the air, particularly after a long period of dry weather.
As an interesting aside, this word was coined in 1964 by two CSIRO scientists, Joy Bear and Richard Thomas, who explained scientifically the origins of this smell. So, petrichor refers to a chemical process in which an oil is released into the air from the earth just before rain begins to fall.
But what a wonderfully evocative word; I have no doubt you all have that heady smell in your mind now.
Turning to the subject of books, this word got me thinking about how often when I talk to people about ebooks, someone will invariably remark how much they love the smell of print books. I then wondered if we have a word to describe the smell of books. A quick Google search reveals I am not the first person to ask this question, but unlike petrichor, it appears there is no single word that captures this smell people profess to love.
Common descriptive words used are ‘musty’, ‘chocolatey’, “like biscuits”, and ‘woody’.
Researchers Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič describe the smell of old books as being like ‘a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness’.
The smell of old books smell comes from the release of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), resulting from chemical reactions as compounds in the paper and bindings break down. The smell we experience can be quite individual, depending on a range of factors including the age of the books, the type of paper used, and how they have been stored, and then our individual descriptions are subjective due to our personal backgrounds. So, while I might smell something smoky, you might experience a fruity aroma.
As part of their research into heritage smells, Bembibre and Strlič have developed a “historic book odour wheel”, which connects identifiable chemicals with people’s descriptions of the smell they experience from an old book, which are then categorised into groups such as ‘sweet spicy’ and ‘grassy woody’.
We can see on the wheel a range of descriptors from chocolate (which was the most common) to rotten socks and mothballs.
Of course, “new book smell’ is quite different to “old book smell’. The smell of new books comes from the combination of glue, paper, and ink, but is equally as enticing to book lovers.
There is no doubt that smell is a powerful sense in evoking emotional responses, both negative and positive. For me, the smell of orange blossom sparks joy as it takes me back to a garden where I attended my first birthday party when I was around 7 years old. Similarly, there is a particular Nina Ricci perfume that always brings a sadness over me as it reminds me of my late mother. This effect can be explained by the anatomy of the brain. Smells are processed by the olfactory bulb, which starts inside the nose, and unlike our other senses of touch, taste, and vision, has direct connections to two brain areas implicated with memory and emotion. This is why smell is so powerful in provoking emotional responses.
So, what then is the emotional association of “aroma de book”?
Possibly the old musty smell of books is like a patina of history, creating a sensory connection to the past and the thoughts of others gone long before us, or is it merely feelings of nostalgia for older times?
Does the smell of a crisp new book suggest the pleasure of delving into a story untouched by others, or an association with the escape and relaxation reading offers?
Or are the aromas simply pleasurable?
Whatever it is, “smell is part of booklore” according to Naomi Baron author of Words onscreen: The fate of reading in the digital world, and it appears to have become an even more significant part of the experience of reading print books because of the perceived threat from ebooks.
I must finish by saying that not everyone shares this love of smelly books.
Some librarian colleagues I spoke to were not enamoured with this smell, arguing that it is mould and decay, and consequently would be happy to have such items relegated to collection buildings, like museums for books, retaining libraries as clean fresh spaces for shiny new things, particularly electronic devices that connect to digital texts.
And while some of you might be gasping at such a thought, there is a compromise. It is possible to buy candles and sprays with fragrances such as “old book”, “trashy romance novel” or “Oxford Library” to give you the olfactory fix while you are e-reading!
Yours in conversation,
Baron, N. (2015). Words onscreen: The fate of reading in a digital world. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Bembibre, C., Strlič, M. (2017). Smell of heritage: a framework for the identification, analysis and archival of historic odours. Heritage Science, 5(2).
Kowalczyk, P. (2017, Sep. 11). 30 book-scented perfumes and candles. Retrieved from https://ebookfriendly.com/book-smell-perfumes-candles/