Can anything beat the smell of an old book? The scent can be delightfully musty, with grassy notes of smoked wood and delicate chocolate. It has the power to transport readers to a far-flung time and place, to the oak-paneled library of their dreams.
The odor is caused by a flurry of volatile organic compounds—such as furfural or benzaldehyde—that drift off the yellowing pages as the text ages. Books, after all, are made from organic materials such as leather and paper, which naturally decay over time. (Books also do an excellent job trapping the stench of their environment. It’s said that Mark Twain’s personal collection is still redolent of the humorist’s tobacco smoke.)
Last spring, the curator at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England, planned an exhibit celebrating the legendary smell of old books. Called “Sensational Books,” the display attempted to capture the scent of some of the most prized texts in the library’s collection, from the Magna Carta to Shakespeare’s First Folio.
To do that, the library enlisted the help of Roger Michel, executive director of the Institute for Digital Archaeology.
At the institute, scientists used modern laboratory equipment to extract ancient odors. They placed some of the Bodleian’s oldest books into a sealed chamber, where special air filters captured fine particulates, which were analyzed. These particles were then transformed into a paste and treated to a ride in a centrifuge. The resulting concoction allowed researchers to “extract essentially the pure essence of the smell of the books, but at the same time, knowing the chemical recipe, so it’s reproducible,” Michel explained in an interview on ABC RN's Late Night Live.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has postponed the opening of the Bodleian exhibit. So, for now, we’ll all have to use our imaginations: Sit back, open your nostrils, and imagine what some of the world’s most famous books and texts may smell like.
1. Magna Carta // Socks and Beach Sand
The Bodleian Library has a 1217 copy of the famous English charter. According to Michel, “it’s like a fine wine, it’s like the most expensive Bordeaux on the wine list.” Other descriptions are less charitable. Michel said that some describe the smell of the Magna Carta as “moist wheat bread and beach sand,” while others say it resembles “newly pressed sheets with traces of old socks.”
2. Hawara Papyri // Embalming Fluid
Ray Bradbury once said that whenever he put his nose into an old book, it was like sniffing back into Ancient Egypt. But what, exactly, does that smell like? The oldest version of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad can be found on the Hawara papyri, an ancient text that was discovered resting under the head of an Egyptian mummy. The pages are said to smell of pine resin and ancient embalming fluid, with a prominent overtone of pungent sesame oils.
3. Shakespeare’s First Folio // Cherries and Moldy Furniture
According to Alexy Karenowska, director of technology at the Institute for Digital Archaeology, the Bodleian’s 1623 copy of the Bard’s First Folio contains “muted sweet notes of benzaldehyde, a chemical evocative of maraschino cherries, and 2-nonenal, known as moldy furniture smell to odor experts, but there are also strong traces of tobacco.”
4. Romeo and Juliet // Notes Worthy of a Perfume
A play by any other name would smell as sweet! Researchers extracted the smell of an old version of Romeo and Juliet, a copy that is rumored to have been handled by William Shakespeare himself. The researchers haven’t divulged what the text smells like, perhaps because they plan to send the scent profile to a perfume company, where the fragrance of the world’s greatest love story will be sold for charity.
5. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe // Tobacco Smoke
In Narnia, the dwarves and Marsh-wiggles enjoy puffing the occasional pipe. This is no surprise: C.S. Lewis was a prolific smoker who started the habit when he was 12. Similarly, the manuscript of his famous tale of adventure smells strongly of tobacco. (The collection contains other titles stained with environmental smells, including some sweet-smelling tomes swarmed by Boston’s Great Molasses Flood of 1919.)
6. 14th-Century Ethiopian Gospel // Incense and Wood
Michel told The Telegraph that “All the books were sufficiently smelly.” But one of the most aromatic texts was an ancient African religious book—bound in wood, leather, and cloth—which possessed a strong woody fragrance and a hearty whiff of holy incense.
7. Ulysses // Motorbike Exhaust?
An archaeologist and diplomat, T.E. Lawrence owned one of the most perplexingly scented books in literature. His copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses has a “sweet, somewhat smoky aroma that suffuses every bit of paper and leather,” according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. (The book was not part of the Bodleian's analysis.) The book’s owner, however, didn’t smoke—prompting wild theories of how the text acquired its unusual smell. Some theorize it came from “the exhaust from Lawrence’s famous motorbike, and even licorice.”
8. Dead Sea Scrolls // A Truly Foul Stench
There’s no delicate way to describe the scent of the Dead Sea Scrolls. When they were discovered in 1947, the papers were wrapped in linen coated with a waxy goo. (The Bodleian did not analyze the scrolls.) The young Bedouin boy who found them was immediately greeted by “a very bad smell,” according to Edmund Wilson of The New Yorker. Some have gone far enough to describe the stench as “evil-smelling.”
For more fascinating facts and stories about your favorite authors and their works, check out Mental Floss's new book, The Curious Reader: A Literary Miscellany of Novels and Novelists, out May 25!