A Literary Take on Smells and Why They Matter

There is something intoxicating in the simple act of picking up a book: the sliding of fingers down the spine, the strum of a thumb across leafy pages in whispering disarray, the whirling and warping of words but most of all, the inimitable smell that floats in the air as you slightly creak one open.

The smell of books holds uncontested appeal amongst literature aficionados, with the scent even finding itself atop world rankings in the “World’s Top 50 Favourite Smells”. No small feat when we consider that the olfactory system that humans possess is presumed to be capable of detecting 1 trillion distinct smells. Science historian and poet, Diane Ackerman, poignantly explores the intricacies
of smell in her book, “A Natural History of the Senses”. She says:

“Each day, we breathe about 23,040 times and move around
438 cubic feet of air. It takes us about five seconds to breathe — two seconds
to inhale and three seconds to exhale — and, in that time, molecules of odor
flood through our systems. Inhaling and exhaling, we smell odors. Smells coat
us, swirl around us, enter our bodies, emanate from us. We live in a constant
wash of them. Still, when we try to describe a smell, words fail us like the
fabrications they are…

The charm of language is that, though it is human-made, it can on rare occasions capture emotions and sensations that
aren’t. But the physiological links between the smell and language centers of the brain are pitifully weak. Not so the links between the smell and the memory centers, a route that carries us nimbly across time and distance.”

Ackerman points out the feeble connection between smell and language within the realization that one cannot articulate or explain a certain smell to someone else, if they themselves have never smelt it. However, odours have permeated literature at a grand scale with authors often insisting upon the quiet power they hold in our lives. Susan Sontag spoke of “linen” and “the smell of newly mown grass” as being among her favourite scents. John Steinbeck animated smell and placed it at the core of earthly existence in his beautiful meditation:

“A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and then- the glory- so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose”, while George Gissing knew “every book of mine by its smell and I have but to put my nose between the pages to be reminded of all sorts of things.”

Smells lodge themselves in the long-term memory sector of our brain and act as one of the most potent triggers for visual and emotive memory. Ackerman explains:

“A smell can be overwhelmingly nostalgic because it triggers powerful images and emotions before we have time to edit
them… When we give perfume to someone, we give them liquid memory. Kipling was right: “Smells are surer than sights and sounds to make your heart-strings crack.”

Our sense of smell finds itself in direct proximity to our cognitive and psycho-emotive circuits, more so than any other of our senses. This explains the conjuring of unedited images of the past when we catch a trail of a certain perfume or of familiar odours.
With books, this materialises in a variety of ways and fluctuates with the passing of time as the chemical elements break down and begin to interact differently.

Books, both new and old, give off several hundreds of volatile organic compounds- some are produced in the process of degradation, whilst others are the result of the type of paper, binding adhesive and printing ink used during the manufacturing of the book.
Paper consists of cellulose and lignin which is a complex of aromatic alcohols and is the same chemical that makes the colour of old paper yellow due to it being oxidized over a long period of time. Lignin also prevents trees from adopting the weeping habit and is a polymer made up of units that are closely related to vanillin. The scent of new books is widely variable due to the introduction of new chemicals in the manufacturing process. Usually associated with industrial freshness, modern binding adhesives are often based on co-polymers, such as vinyl acetate. Paper is also treated with a range of chemicals during the paper-making process in order to achieve certain properties and though most of those chemicals are odourless, they can react and release volatile organic compounds. The scent of older books tends to be a muskier, sweeter sort which can then further change when in contact with dust.

Over time, the gradual breakdown of cellulose and lignin produces different compounds and affects their concentrations. For instance, the compound Toluene is a sweet odour while Vanillin releases vanilla-like tones. Other compounds include 2-Ethyl Hexanol which is slightly floral, and Benzaldehyde which is reminiscent of almonds. In short, no single chemical can explain the smells associated with books but it is rather an amalgamation of different elements that creates this beautiful smell. This is how divine providence has arranged for secondhand bookstores to smell so heavenly, subliminally stoking the hunger for reading in all of us. Joe Hill understands the unprecedented pleasure of
bookish smells in his novel NOS4A2 when he writes:

“She breathed deeply of
the scent of decaying fiction, disintegrating history, and forgetting verse,
and she observed for the first time that a room full of books smelled like
dessert: a sweet snack made of figs, vanilla, glue and cleverness.”

May you build your libraries far and wide and watch them age, smelling of sweet, sweet figs that carry the memories of lives past.