A New Way to Smell Old Books

(Image Courtesy Warner Brothers)


It's just one of the reasons they'll have to drag me kicking and screaming into the world of Kindles, Nooks and BeBooks.** So it's rather amusing that while the forces of technology and science seem intent on carrying out a kind of print holocaust***, some scientists are hard at work creating new ways to smell books.

Yes, according to a newly published study in the American Chemical Society's journal Analytical Chemistry, a team of Brits and Slovenians have developed an approach called "material degradomics." It's essentially a chemical test that analyzes the gases emitted by old books and documents without damaging the books themselves. Please, by all means, consider this awesome quote from the article:

"The aroma of an old book is familiar to every user of a traditional library. A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness..."

Funny, I always just thought of that smell as "science fictiony." I also tend to associate it with particular authors, perhaps stating, "Geez, it smells like a Clifford Simak novel in here." But I digress.

The technology actually has some of its roots in the food and pharmaceutical industries, where packing odors are a major concern. This new test, however, could help historians and librarians by providing them with an expedient way of measuring a book's rate of chemical decomposition, thus optimizing preservation.

There was no mention as to how this technology might be used to find specific lost tomes in hidden labyrinths, or to help folks avoid ones with poison-earmarked pages.

* While they're not my cup of tea, I always find the cigarette and cat scent of old harlequin romances amusing. ** Seriously, Amazon, try and sell me one of these things when I can file my birth certificate inside it AND kill the occasional palmetto bug invader with it. Plus, as John Hodgman points out, a thick book can stop most small-caliber bullets. *** Allison Loudermilk points out this NPR story about a private high school in Massatuisits going all-digital. Shame. Eternal shame.

Read more odorless articles at HowStuffWorks.com: How the Amazon Kindle Works How to Create a Home Library How Smell Works Need a New Book to Read? Try these HSW Staff History Picks

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.