The Scent of Knowledge

There’s something exceptionally enchanting about the fragrance of old books. I’ve always loved libraries and used bookshops. There’s just some intangible quality about them which grants them a unique atmosphere, found nowhere else. That atmosphere is compounded by the aroma which only aged pages of writing can duplicate.

This chaotic ensemble of phenols (pictured to the right) is a complex biopolymer called lignin. It comes from the cell walls of plants, and is responsible for the physical strength of wood. If not for lignin, there would be no tree trunks. Or trees for that matter.

Because trees are found on all continents except Antarctica, lignin is the second most abundant organic polymer on the face of our planet. 30% of all organic carbon (excluding fossilised carbon like coal and oil) is found in lignin across the world. Actually, the only polymer more abundant than lignin is cellulose, which is also found in the cell walls of plants. Plants own Earth really, not animals.

Paper has been made from wood ever since it was invented in Ancient China sometime around the second century. Over time, forests worth of trees have been turned into books. As of 2010, Google had documented nearly 130 million different book titles in existence. Given how many copies of every book are now able to be made with modern printing technology, the number of actual books in the world has been estimated in the billions, and even in the trillions. More books have existed on planet Earth than there are stars in the galaxy. I think the human race should be proud of that.

As books age, the lignin in their pages begins to break down. Chemical bonds fall apart with time and old pages are turned shades of yellow and golden brown as smaller molecules leak from them. Sweet, fragrant molecules. Vanillin (used in all manner of perfumes) gives book pages the warm scent of vanilla, while anisole gives that unmistakeable sharp, crisp scent. Others like benzaldehyde give a faint almondy tinge to the aroma, and resins used to treat the pages give a thick woody scent. No two books smell alike, and there are enough subtleties to their aromas to keep a wine critic endlessly entertained. This is the reason why old books have their unmistakeable aroma which has doubtless partially fuelled a love of them, amongst those who seek knowledge, for generations. Books have a fragrance like no other.

As much as I love technology, display screens, and digital media… There’s always going to be a special place in my heart for books. The scent of them is just one part of that.

While I may be vehemently against deforestation, both books and symbiosis with the planet are in no way a bad thing.

Image credits:
Chemical structures from Wikimedia Commons
Old books image unsourced. If you know where it’s from, please leave a comment and let me know — Thanks!

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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