SCIENCE IS SO KEWL! Where Does the Smell of Old Books Come From?
Old books have a distinctive smell that can make any book lover’s heart melt. Matija Strlic of University College London described it to The Telegraph 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.”
The secret to the scent is within the hundreds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that make up the book’s paper pages, ink, and adhesive. Over time, the VOCs break down, releasing the chemicals into the air that are picked up by our noses. New books also have a trademark aroma, but it isn’t quite as developed as their older counterparts. Additionally, different materials used in manufacturing the book will alter the VOC profile.
Compound Chemistry reports that hints of almond are created by benzaldehyde, while vanillin emits notes of vanilla. Sweet smells come from toluene and ethyl benzene, and 2-ethyl hexanol produces a light floral fragrance. Additionally, the book can also retain some odors it has been exposed to during its history, such as smoke, water damage, or pressed flowers between the pages.
One historic example of this phenomenon, scientists now believe, is the madness that prevailed in the late 1600s in Salem, Mass. where ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus, infected the rye crops that went into rye bread. Ergot contains lysergic acid, a key compound of the hallucinogenic drug LSD. This tiny fungus and its wild effects on the rye-bread-eating women may have led to the Salem witch trials.
Rossol, a New York chemist and consultant to Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History who publishes the newsletter ACTS FACTS, the Journal of Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety, said that there have not been scientific studies on the hallucinogenic effects of old books.
The magic of the addictive smell of books was very well described by the team of researchers, who concluded that it’s “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.”
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