The Smell of Old Books

It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.

― Arthur Conan Doyle,  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)

I love the smell of old paper: sweet, dry and nostalgic.1

Some people, of course, dismiss it as the smell of must, mould or decomposing wood.

But to me, it is also walking through a copse of trees in summer, climbing into a wooden treehouse, browsing the shelves of an old library, sitting down on old furniture, searching through the storeroom in your old house, a secondhand bookshops’ cosy atmosphere, and smelling chocolate or coffee beans.2

A book lover also could simply go on and on at length about the buttery colour, the feel and texture that these old books have. Some have even tried to capture it in a bottle.3   But I’m going to talk about how I first realized my love for this scent.

The first time I realized I liked this book smell was was when papa brought some secondhand books for my college lit classes. Among them was an old copy of English Critical Essays (Nineteenth Century), first published in the early 1900s. The book was small and the hardcover was wrapped in orange paper.  The first essay was excerpted from a preface by Wordsworth for one of his poetry books.

Sometimes I like to imagine some visiting British person left it behind during colonial times. Who knows from where how far it has travelled?

From there my love of old books grew, sometimes I found ones that did not smell good because of how they had been stored, but other times I found gems like my copy of the complete Sherlock Holmes novels in hardcover and my old worn spine-broken copy of The Lord of the Rings.

Subsequently, I found books on my own shelves that have become old enough to have that pleasant old book smell. While packing up my shelves for house painting I realised that books from my childhood collection have that sweet smell too now, and in addition, they evoke so many memories of all those times I read them. New books don’t have the same smell texture colour, they don’t age the same way. Their crisp white pages, sharp fonts, that fresh print smell… they are fun to have. But they might not obtain that old books smell even when they grow old.

I love ebooks, the fun of reading in the dark, the ease of looking up difficult words, the flexibility of lighting and font, the font in paper books is just too small, too tiring for my eyes.  But ebooks like new paper books do not evoke the connection to other places or to the places of our pasts like old books. Only time will tell if any of these can capture these memories and feelings so vividly.

The beautiful scent of old books seems to hold more strongly to the memory of reading them.


1 Post inspired by “That Secondhand Bookstore Smell

2 I added this last part because of this article “The Quest to Better Describe the Scent of Old Books”  While I think coffee and chocolate do not smell the same as old paper, they do smell just as sweet and evoke the same feelings of happiness and anticipation as old books.

3 Interview with a bookish perfumer.

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