There's something magical about an antique book. It’s both delicate—perhaps with a torn linen cover and yellowing pages—and strong because it has survived to tell its tale. However, the musty smell is what makes me smile. It brings back happy memories of sitting in the library stacks at college paging though tomes of old books, or shopping in a secondhand book store.
In 2009, a study was conducted on the smell of old books. A scientist decided to investigate after noticing a book expert sniffing a book to assess its age.
"The aroma of an old book is familiar to every user of a traditional library," he wrote. "A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness, this unmistakable smell is as much part of the book as its contents." The study found that as a book ages, the paper, ink and glue break down, releasing hundreds of volatile organic compounds into the air which creates the familiar old book scent.
Of our five senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell), the sense of smell is the most powerful. Researchers estimate that humans can distinguish one trillion different odors. (Probably not true for allergy sufferers.) Also, smell more than any other sense is linked to parts of the brain that process emotion, including mood and memory.
I once took part in a focus group about butter. The advertising firm studied this group to help decide which print and television campaigns to use in order to effectively market a particular brand of butter. The market researchers first asked our group if we liked butter and if the smell reminded us of childhood. A participant said it reminded her of her mother. Then they asked if she liked her mother. The answer was, “yes.” I believe the resulting television commercial was of a mother bringing butter to her children at the breakfast table.
The Oscar Mayer Company, famous for meat and cold cuts, understands the power of scent. They recently created an iPhone app that wakes you up to the sound and smell (with an additional plug-in fan) of bacon frying in a skillet. (Bacon lovers you can embrace the sizzle and apply to be a beta tester.)
So, if smell is our strongest sense, should we write descriptions of how things smell more frequently than, for instance, how something looks or tastes? I don’t know the answer, but I will add more descriptions of aromas in the future.
In addition to that old book smell, I love how the desert smells of creosote after a hard rain. It reminds me of my childhood spent in the sunny Southwest.
Do you have a favorite scent?