Nicola here, asking a personal question. Do you sniff your books? It’s something that non-readers apparently find weird, something that is perhaps best done in the privacy of one’s own home to avoid strange looks and odd explanations. But if, like me, you are a book sniffer, then you understand perfectly that the smell of a book can be a wonderful thing.
Scientists say that there is a rational explanation for the attraction to the smell of old books. The paper, adhesive and ink that make up books degrade over time, giving off a volatile chemical compound. The lignin in almost all wood-based paper is related to vanilla and almonds, so our books smell slightly sweet.
However, there are other forces at work here too. Old books smell of nostalgia. They awaken memories and feelings. Our sense of smell is linked to the brain’s limbic system and therefore reminds us of resonances and associations with a particular book. It might be events, people, or places, or it might be an emotion. Whatever the association, the scent is a powerful reminder. I can identify with this. When I was a child I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and would rifle through the wardrobe in their spare bedroom because it contained my grandmother’s romantic fiction novels. It also contained her jewellery, perfume and fur coats, so to this day I associate those books – Anya Seton, Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt, Phyllis Witney – with glamour, gorgeous perfume and sparkly gemstones.
There is also a theory, unscientific but very appealing, that books remind us of all the good things in our lives. They remind us of wonderful moments and they make us feel happy. This association is particularly strong if you associate the smell of a book with a particular library, or if a book smell gives you that sense of anticipation you may have experienced as a child when you eagerly awaited your next exciting read. Books can make us feel comfortable and relaxed if we associate them with quiet time or holidays, time for ourselves, the luxury of peace and quiet. Perhaps that’s why it can be difficult to return as an adult to a book or author you were made to read at school and didn’t enjoy. The emotional association is negative, not positive.
Then there’s the smell of new books, different but also special in its own way. New books smell of anticipation and promise (also of freshly printed paper and fresh binding0. It’s a heady mix that excites our senses.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what books smell like because their scent varies from individual to individual depending on how we scent and experience them. Some people describe books as smelling of the sea, or of fresh air and rain; others identify salt and pepper smells, chocolate and even biscuits. Conservators and historians are trained to sniff books as part of the process of conservation. Those with the keenest noses can identify whether an old book is of say English or Italian origin on smell alone.
The life of books also affects how they smell – have they travelled, how and where have they been stored? It’s exciting to think of old books crossing the globe in saddlebags or on sailing ships!
Does all this mean that reading on a Kindle means that we are missing out on a special part of the reading experience? Well, it’s different, certainly. But there is also pleasure to be had in the thought that your holiday bag isn’t so heavy anymore because all those books are now on one neat device! Plus these days you can even buy a fragrance to waft around you as you read!
Are you a book-sniffer? What do books smell of to you? And do you have any books that evoke particular memories or emotions?