On the Science of Bibliosmia: That Enticing Book Smell
In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle ponders the strange pull of bibliosmia by getting his nose literally into a book
‘There is no future for e-books, because they are not books. E-books smell like burned fuel.’ So Ray Bradbury, author of the nightmare dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 about a world where books are burned, dismissed the long-term future of electronic books. And certainly, recent sales figures suggest that the traditional book is holding its own: as Rick Rylance points out in his detailed study of the value of books, Literature and the Public Good (The Literary Agenda), a UK Reading Habits survey conducted in 2015 showed that 71% of respondents didn’t use e-boos at all, and 76% preferred the traditional book to its electronic equivalent. Just 10% preferred e-books, with the remaining 14% presumably neutral. In the same year, sales of e-books dropped by 2.4% in the UK, while print sales, Rylance tells us, rose by 8.4%. In the US, sales of e-books began to tail off in 2013 and haven’t recovered since.
In 2014, while bored on Twitter one lunchtime, I proposed that we call this phenomenon ‘bibliosmia’, after the Greek words for ‘book’ and ‘smell’. Perhaps ‘phenomenon’ is too strong a word for it, but at any rate I soon found that the word was being taken up by others: on the Twitter feed for Steve Wright’s BBC Radio 2 ‘Factoids’ segment, for instance, or in this AbeBooks meme (recently shared by @goodreads on Twitter), or in this article about book-related words. Clearly ‘bibliosmia’ names something which people feel is an important part of the reading experience, and something which Bradbury’s ‘burned fuel’ cannot provide. In the supposed age of the e-book, bibliosmia is one of the key weapons of the resistance. Bibliosmia, the individual scent attached to a particular book, is the one thing an electronic book can never offer, just as we’ve never got ‘smellovision’.
Why do books smell, though, and why do we find the smell so intoxicating, bordering on the addictive? Bibliosmia or book-smell is caused by the chemical breakdown of compounds within the paper. What we’re smelling is the slow death of the book, albeit over a very long period of time (paper nevertheless endures for centuries, sometimes longer), which also explains why, as a general rule, the older the book, the better the smell. Paper contains cellulose and lignin (a polymer of aromatic alcohols which is also responsible for the pages of your old books turning yellow), although old books also contain a number of other chemicals, including benzaldehyde, vanillin, ethyl hexanaol, toluene, and ethyl benzene. As the name of vanillin suggests, the resultant bibliosmia is sweet in both a figurative and a most literal sense.
Smell is in some ways the most powerful and acute of the senses: the most effective at conjuring up memories, for instance. Yet as the critic Christopher Ricks has pointed out, we have no word for remembering smell, just as we have no word for imagining a taste, or a sound, or the touch of something. Only our sense of sight is given that honour: visualise. The corresponding smell-related word olfactorise is yet to grace the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary – as, indeed, is bibliosmia, though I nurture a foolish hope that by 2024 it will have found its way in as a draft addition at least. But the link between smell and memory is a vital part of the appeal of bibliosmia. A book’s smell can lend it individuality: it’s not just about the smell of the paper or the ink used in the printing of the book. A second-hand book, for instance, may have its own unique aroma. I have a used copy of Ezra Pound’s The Cantos which reeks strongly of cigarettes. I’ve never smoked, but the smell of the book’s pages reveals that it was once owned – and kept close to – someone who regularly did. It’s a pleasing reminder of the book’s past before I acquired it, of perhaps two decades of its previous possessor grappling with Pound’s difficult allusions and challenging use of Chinese characters.
George Gissing once observed, ‘I know every book of mine by its smell, & I have but to put my nose between the pages to be reminded of all sorts of things.’ Bibliosmia is the experience of the reader and the book, which is a multisensory experience. So let’s bang the drum for bibliosmia, for the right to have our noses quite literally in a book, the better to soak up the wonderful smell they give off. There was much talk of the ‘death of the traditional book’ when e-books arrived. Such fears (or hopes) were perhaps unfounded, or at least premature. But the beautiful tragedy of the traditional book is that, even as it dies, as the stuff of which it is made slowly ceases to be, it gives off the wonderful smell which helps make it what it is. And with that, I’m off down the local library to sniff some D. H. Lawrences.
Oliver Tearle is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.