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June 16, 2014 AT 9:00 am

The Science Behind the Heavenly Smell of Old Books

Aroma Chemistry The Smell of Books 724x1024

We’ve all been known to take a furtive whiff from the pages of an early addition while looming in the stacks or in the corner of an old bookstore. Fastcoexist published a story that examines the science behind that mysterious olfactory goodness:

But what causes these smells? A UK chemist and teacher who runs the blog Compound Interest, an exploration of everyday chemical compounds, went to investigate and came up with an infographic to explain the matter.

That “new book smell” is a combination of the volatile compounds released from ink, bookbinding adhesives, and the paper itself. There isn’t much existing research that looks into these aromas. Because of the variation in chemicals and the hundreds of compounds that go into the process, the exact smells are hard to pin down, the blog notes.

A larger body of research has examined the causes of old book smell, mostly because people use smell as one way to assess the age and condition of older volumes. The smell, the blog says, is caused by the chemical breakdown of lignin and cellulose compounds in the paper, which give off a wide variety of organic compounds, including those with smells described as being reminiscent of almonds, vanilla, floral, and sweet. Furfural, one byproduct, is often used to date the publication of old books.

Read more.


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