The Scent of a Book


There were other books on those childhood bookshelves I mentioned the other day, books that contributed to the sense of the numinous about my young reading life. Though their romance subsided, for the most part, as I got older (read: was too cool), visiting them again recently on the shelves at my mother’s house occasioned a veritable madeleine moment. I inhaled; I was transported.

These particular books don’t partake of your average book smells. No, the books I’m talking about are Penhaligon’s Scented Treasuries; books whose endpapers were scented with Penhaligon’s English perfumes. These were special purchases, made one at a time, somewhere in the mall in the early 90s. Humble origins for books that to me were absolute treasures. Inhale deeply, and the pages smelt not of must or chemical stew, but gardenias, roses, posies! The very scent of the books was as evocative as the contents, reproductions of 19th-century paintings paired with excerpts of prose and verse. I have always gravitated toward old things, other centuries; so of course these scented books were treasuries indeed, of everything I found romantic, and magical, and transporting. The books also provoked a lifelong love of Penhaligon’s perfumes (so exotically English to my budding Anglophile imagination); I still wear one of the scents today.

What is it about the scent of books? Because while it’s true that most volumes don’t transport us to an English garden via the organ of the nose (though many via the eyes or mind), old books in particular have such a distinct odor that, for a lifelong reader, a good old yellowed paperback bears the homey scent of an old friend. An instant Pavlovian cue to breathe deep, relax, and immerse oneself in story.

And it turns out that those old books are actually cultivating their own garden of scents through the passage of time. Lignin in old paper begins to degrade and form acids, which break down the paper’s cellulose content. This process of degradation causes the release of a host of volatile organic compounds, many of which smell sweet, fruity, or grassy. There’s a great article at Compound Interest detailing a few specific compounds: “benzaldehyde adds an almond-like scent; vanillin adds a vanilla-like scent; ethyl benzene and toluene impart sweet odours; and 2-ethyl hexanol has a ‘slightly floral’ contribution.” A chemical garden indeed.

I’ve found almost no information online about the history of Penhaligon’s scented books. Perhaps an email to the company is in order? They’re no longer published, and can be had quite cheap on the secondhand market. They’re worth it just for the scents alone, many of which are still available as perfumes from Penhaligon’s. Oh, and the poetry excerpts! Those are good too; especially if you plan to actually read the books, instead of just smelling them.