What Is That 'Old Books Smell'? Chemistry Has Answers

Based on research by scientists at University College, London, a video from AbeBooks explains the causes of the characteristic odor of old books. 

Based on research by scientists at University College, London, a video from AbeBooks explains the causes of the characteristic odor of old books. According to the video, the lead scientist on the study described it as a "combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness." 

In an age of odorless ebooks, a passion for sniffing old books calls to mind Lenny Abramov, the protagonist of Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story. In a materialistic near-future society, he is alone in his love of printed books. In one scene, quoted on Good Reads, he explains: 

Then I celebrated my Wall of Books. I counted the volumes on my twenty-foot-long modernist bookshelf to make sure none had been misplaced or used as kindling by my subtenant. “You’re my sacred ones,” I told the books. “No one but me still cares about you. But I’m going to keep you with me forever. And one day I’ll make you important again.” I thought about that terrible calumny of the new generation: that books smell.

When he falls in love with a younger woman, he decides to take drastic measures tomask the smell, but she's not impressed: "She looked at my Wall of Books with a neutral expression, although by now my volumes mostly stank of Pine-Sol Wild Flower Blast and not their natural printed essence" (thanks to Sarah Handelman for digging up the line). It's hard to imagine, though, that Pine-Sol could smell better than "grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla..."  

AbeBooks, an online marketplace for new, used, and rare books, has been publishing short web videos about collecting books to a YouTube channel and provides a Basic Guide to Collecting Books on their site. They seem to have a sense of humor about their fusty domain, creating videos like this "romance novel cover photo shoot" to accompany an article about romance novel covers.

For more videos by Abe Books, visit the YouTube channel

Via Open Culture

Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.

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