James Werrell

Smells can trigger childhood memories

Those of us who grew up without computers might have trouble recalling the plots of many of the books we read when we were young. But it’s doubtful we will ever forget the aroma of an old book.

While the smell of old books might be hard to describe in any great detail, one whiff can send us back to days spent in the library, rummaging through our grandparents’ bookcases or poking around in a vintage bookstore. The smell is a combination of dust, yellowing paper, mustiness, smoke, maybe leather and an elusive array of other mysterious scents that add up to Eau de Old Book.

That smell might be lost forever, preserved only in the memories of aging bookworms as the world turns more and more to reading on electronic devices. But some scientists/historians/romanticists have proposed the slightly wacky but also enticing idea of preserving historic scents and aromas as part of our heritage.

We preserve historic buildings, battlefields, wilderness areas and other objects of cultural and historical value. Why not smells?

A long and scholarly article in England’s Heritage Science Journal notes that “odors play an important role in our daily lives: they affect us emotionally, psychologically and physically, and influence the way we engage with history.” And that provokes the question: Should this lead us to consider certain smells as cultural heritage?

Actually, it already has in some places. Japan, for example, has begun cataloging important smells to preserve.

Contributors proposed 5,600 different aromas to be considered. Out of those, an initial group of 100 was chosen for preservation. The aromas included those of ancient woods, sea breezes, sake distilleries and a street lined with bookshops.

The sources of those smells now are protected and carry a seal that reads: “Scents to be handed down to our children.”

But the authors of the Heritage Science Journal article took special interest in the smell of historic paper, noting that by inhaling the aroma of old books, we can “smell history.” They also note that, as convenient as e-books, laptops and tablets might be, they can’t evoke the same nostalgia as the smell of an old book.

While this project might seem whimsical, it also is well rooted in the scientific method. Researchers decided that in order to capture the authentic smell of aged tomes, they would have to analyze the different volatile compounds contained in them.

And while you might not be able to pinpoint why an old book smells the way it does, they could. Odorous compounds of samples from a historic book included varying traces of hexanol, furfural, propanoic acid, benzaldehyde, toluene, nonanal and several other recognizable ingredients.

Furfural, for example, lends a sweet note, like bread and almonds. Nonanal has a citrusy, green smell. Propanoic acid is a pungent rancid odor.

Together, these compounds (and probably some that could not be detected) produce the smell we love when we open a book that might have languished, say, in the shelves of a tiny reading room at a summer camp, fingered by campers for generations, developing its special character over the decades.

Smells can have a unique and often intense effect on memory. A whiff of something from out of our past can instantly summon images from years ago.

Olfactory cues also might help us better relate to historical events, which is one of the reasons advocates are calling for the preservation of important scents. For many, though, saving old smells, aromas, even foul ones, is likely to be more of a nostalgic pursuit.

Losing the smell of old books would be a pity. Wouldn’t it be much nicer if we could somehow bottle it and bring it out whenever we needed to recall the comfort of sitting down with a book that might have changed our lives – or at least helped us wile away a lazy, rainy afternoon?

Here’s hoping the preservation project prospers. Maybe someday we’ll be able to go to an olfactory museum of ancient smells to get a whiff of history – and perhaps recall a piece of our own history in the process.

James Werrell is opinion page editor of The Herald.