Photo: David Flores
Smell is chemistry, and the chemistry of old books gives your cherished tomes their scent. As a book ages, the chemical compounds used—the glue, the paper, the ink–begin to break down. And, as they do, they release volatile compounds—the source of the smell. A common smell of old books, says the International League for Antiquarian Booksellers, is a hint of vanilla: “Lignin, which is present in all wood-based paper, is closely related to vanillin. As it breaks down, the lignin grants old books that faint vanilla scent.”
A study in 2009 looked into the smell of old books, finding that the complex scent was a mix of “hundreds of so-called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released into the air from the paper,” says the Telegraph. Here’s how Matija Strlic, the lead scientist behind that study, described the smell of an old book:
A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness, this unmistakable smell is as much a part of the book as its contents.Ed note: What makes rain smell so good?
The Greenland Whale from Whales by Robert Hamilton (1843)
What Mr. Hamilton had to say:
Bulky as the whale is, and clumsy as it appears to be, it might be imagined that all its motions must be sluggish, and its greatest exertions productive of no great celerity. The fact, however, is the reverse. A whale extended motionless at the surface of the sea, can sink, in the space of five or six seconds, beyond the reach of its human enemies. Its velocity along the surface, and in other directions, is the same. I have observed, says Scorseby, a whale descending, after I had harpooned it, to the depth of about one-fourth of a mile, with the average velocity of seven or eight miles an hour. The usual rate, however, at which these whales swim, when on their passage from one situation to another, seldom exceeds four miles an hour. They are capable, however, for the space of a few minutes, of darting through the water with the velocity of the fastest ship under sail; and of ascending with such rapidity, as to leap entirely out of the water. This feat they sometimes perform apparently as an amusement, to the high admiration of the distant spectator; but to the no small terror of the inexperienced fisher. Sometimes the whales throw themselves into a perpendicular position, with their heads downwards, and moving their tremendous tails on high in the air, beat the water with awful violence, which, cracking like a whip, resounds to the distance of two or three miles; the sea is thrown into foam, and the air filled with vapours. This performance is denominated “lob-tailing.” (p83-84)