Why Do Old Books Smell So Good?

Science says it has something to do with chocolate and coffee

If there’s one thing bookworms can universally agree upon, it’s that old books smell damn good (maybe even delicious). I previously chalked up my predilection for inhaling timeworn, musty books to nostalgia. Like a lot of readers, I have fond memories of checking out yellowed volumes at my local library, and although smell is the strongest sense connected to memory, scientists have found equally compelling evidence for why we’re so drawn to the scent of old books: chocolate and coffee.

According to Popular Science, Researchers at University College London’s Institute for Sustainable Heritage have now subjected book-sniffing lore to the rigors of the scientific method. The quest to analyze book aromas began a few years back when chemist Matija Strlič observed paper conservators smelling the pages of the texts they were studying. Strlič, a conservator himself, was curious why his colleagues were doing this, and they told him that they could decipher a great deal about what properties constitute aged books by simply smelling them. Strlič says, “I thought, surely we can develop some scientific techniques that are more accurate than the human nose,” so he set out to create a classification system.

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How did his team go about extracting this vaporous data? Well, books emit volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), known to us common folk as ‘smells.’ “Those compounds can be detected by sensors…[which] detected tiny variations in the chemical compositions of very old books,” and shed light on “key smell components in the books.” Strlič then teamed up with heritage scientist Cecilia Bembibre and the U.K.’s National Trust to investigate how people respond to the scents. In an experiment setup at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the overwhelming majority of 79 participants reported that the smell of old books reminded them of chocolate and coffee. The response took researchers by surprise, but the correlation came up again at another library. Bembibre eventually made a “historic paper odor wheel,” which she hopes will strengthen researchers abilities to connect a smell with a compound. For laymen this new information is significant because it finally puts forward a concrete explanation for why we’re so attracted to the smell of decrepit books. It’s a rare bunch of people who don’t like chocolate or coffee.

If you’re a real nut for the fragrance of old books (or now feel a newfound urge to surround yourself with their musk after reading this) there’s a highly-rated candle on Etsy that advertises just that. Or, you could do it the old-fashioned way — hit up your local library or used bookshop and start wafting.

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