What is "used book smell?"

In this short video, Richard from ABEbooks describes the distinctive smell of old books ("a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla, with an underlying mustiness") caused by hundreds of volatile compounds released during the slow oxidization of the paper, glues and inks.

Why Do Old Books Smell? (via Neatorama)


  1. Oh man, I love that smell! If I buy an old book, I’ll open it wide, bury my nose in it, and breathe deep.

    Aaaaand, it’s probably got carcinogens or other nasty things in it, and I don’t care.

  2. Greatest smell in the world. Didn’t Feynman train himself to identify peoples’ books by smell? I seem to recall that from Surely You’re Joking… .

    Funny thing happened as the page was rendering. Somehow the Volt ad got where the video should have been, but I just saw for  a second or two a block that said “advertisement”. I imagined for a moment I was about to see an ad for “old book smell”. Cool concept, but I don’t really need it. My apartment already smells like that.

  3. The vanilla scent is from the breakdown of lignin, a primary component of wood pulp.  Strangely enough, a book about perfumes explained much of the characteristic aroma of old books.   I used to work in a computer lab, and the scent of boxes of form-feed paper for computer terminals was strangely enticing as well.

    1. “The vanilla scent is from the breakdown of lignin, a primary component of wood pulp.”
      No surpise, as that’s what vanillin, synthetic vanilla flavor, is made out of.

  4. I watched this video while sharpening pencils using approved techniques found in “How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants”. Best day ever.

    1. That was not debunking. Sure, if the book is in an environment with strong smells (the blog post talks about smokers and people who make spicy food) then of course the books will pick up that smell. But… the blog poster asserts that a book that is placed in an atmosphere controlled environment will have neutral smell… ok, got any link or anything supporting that assertion?

      I went over to my bookcase and picked up some old books, opened them and stuck my nose right in (yes, I do love the smell of old books!). They all have been in the same environment for a long time… I know, because I picked up them from a cupboard filled with old books of my mom and dad, and they have been there as long as I remember and after that in my bookcase… so… um… 40 years+ of being in the same environment with each other?… and they all smelled different. If the bloggers assertion was true then they would smell the same. Actually, to my surprise, one of the books actually had more or less no smell at all, but, there was an old envelope between the first pages (I guess it had been used as a book mark, I hadn’t noticed it before) and that one did have the “old book smell”, so this in itself proves the “debunking” false.

    -I’ve put a great deal of thought into this phenomenon for many decades and these are my conclusions.-Good bookstore are often cramped, poorly ventilated spaces. Mazes of bookshelves naturally create “back waters” of air current where trapped effluvium accumulates.-Bibliophiles may be prone to sedentary habits and “slow” digestion, that is to say they may harbor a greater than average quantity of compressed fecal matter in their lower digestive tract allowing greater percolation of gas. They also are often older persons. Older persons fart more.-People often ritualistically visit bookstores immediately after consuming coffee.-While lingering for hours perusing books, it is common for patrons to repeatedly crouch to access books on lower shelves, and then stand to reach upper shelves. These recurrent squat/extensions facilitate the passage of more abdominal gas bubbles.-EVERY book is potentially a storage cell, absorbing fart vapor particulates during peak hours and gradually rereleasing at off peak hours. A book may rapidly discharge if it is opened and the pages are fanned. -Used books may contain many decades of stored flatulence. When properly stored, farts remain potent for more than a century. So, when you open an old book, and leaf through its pages, the farts wafting up at you, might be the farts of your own great, great, grandfather! – While I don’t enjoy smelling other peoples farts, I hypothesize that the concentration of farts in a bookstore is often a reliable gauge of the quality of the store, with high levels of well aged fart permeation indicating both a high concentration of interesting merchandise, and a dedicated clientele.

  6. I love the smell but I am allergic to it. I know it’s weird, but every time I go into a Library I get sick to my stomach. I mean damn near violently ill. It’s not just one library either. It happens to me in Used Book shops, and just about any place that has a high Volume of older, Musty Books. I hate that it happens, because I love the smell. I love the whole Library System in fact. The Displays, the Cataloging System, the People. They are like treasure troves waiting to be plundered. I love finding other peoples book marks in books. I even look at the check out cards and marvel at the names of people that have read a book I am interested in. I wonder what they thought about the book, I am going to be reading.

  7. I for one am welcoming the rise of the ebooks as it will make my small collection of first editions and rarities all the more valuable. NOT that I would dream of selling them mind you…….

    just nice to know the option is there.

    LOVE that old book smell!!

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