Mystery Of 'Old Book Smell' Finally Solved

The distinctive aroma of musty vanilla makes perfect sense now.

It's a smell that's hard to describe, but we all know it. That vaguely dusty, sweet smell coming from the pages of an old book. 

It's not romantic. It's science. 

Chemistry teacher and blogger Andy Brunning gives us the breakdown on the breakdown of paper molecules that eventually results in the classic "old book smell."

Brunning separates "new book smell" (attributed to the paper, ink, adhesives and chemicals used to print the book) with old book smell. That's where it gets more complicated. 

As paper degrades, it releases many compounds, including those that add up to the old book smell.

"Benzaldehyde adds an almond-like scent; vanillin adds a vanilla-like scent; ethyl benzene and toluene impart sweet odours; and 2-ethyl hexanol has a ‘slightly floral’ contribution," Brunning writes. (Check out this chart for a much more visual explanation of what's happening.)

In our e-reader world, old book smell could soon be as obsolete as using a typewriter. But there's an important reason to study old book smell. By knowing which compounds are present and how they break down over time, researchers can pinpoint books' age with more accuracy. 


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