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The sweet, sexy smell of old books is a perfume fad

Quartz/Corinne Purtill
The only thing more satisfying than looking at this is smelling it.
By Corinne Purtill
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

You first spied each other at the library, or the indie bookstore, or over a rack of yellowing hardcovers at a second-hand store. The attraction is undeniable. It’s time to make a move. Entice your beloved by smelling like the thing he or she most desires. Make yourself smell like a book.

“Book smell” is now a thing in the perfume world, like vanilla or sandalwood. In the last few years, dozens of products have appeared on the market to give your home or person the earthy scent of a rare book collection.

Sweet Tea Apothecaries sells Dead Writers Perfume, which promises to evoke the aroma of books old enough for their authors to have passed to the great writers’ retreat in the sky. Perfumer Christopher Brosius’s “In the Library” product line makes your home and body smell just like that. The high-end fragrance Paper Passion claims to capture the “unique olfactory pleasures of the freshly printed book,” though for roughly $200 per bottle it’s a lot cheaper to just buy a freshly printed book.

The appeal of old books’ smell has been studied in depth. Wood-based paper contains lignin, a chemical closely related to vanillin, the compound that gives vanilla its fragrance. As the pages age and the compounds break down, they release that signature scent. An experienced rare book handler can date a volume by scent alone, according to the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.

Furthermore, scent is strongly tied to memory. Just as the scent of sunscreen or fresh-cut grass can suddenly evoke memories of childhood summers, for the bookish among us the scent of old manuscripts recalls pleasures like reading an old classic, or scouring a library or used bookstore.

There’s also the nostalgia element. The paper used for books today contains much less lignin than that of old volumes. That reissue of Hemingway is never going to smell as nice as a first edition, no matter how long it stays on your shelf. A book that smells like a book is a relic of how we used to spend time. Decades from now, will it be possible to bottle the scent of “Nights Alone on the Couch With Netflix”?

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