The Scent Of Old Books

Many things in life surprise us. Years ago when I decided to hunt out forgotten books and help folks build their libraries of fine old collectables, I would have been surprised at the skills it would force me to acquire. It seemed so simple: go on book hunting adventures, bring them to my desk, list them online, and mail them off to someone’s home. But that’s not how it really happened…not at all!


  • Many, many hours of study on making your books visible in the overwhelming load of information on the internet.

  • Learning an entirely new set of terms and specialized vocabulary that pertains to various wear and aging patterns of books that never occurs in the average conversations of one’s life. 

  • Finding a decades-old mark on a book and spending days trying to figure out what caused it (because that is a great factor in determining value etc.). And doing the same thing for a different mark the next week. And the next.

  • Spending a day deep in research on a long-forgotten 1800’s publishing company, trying to sleuth out exactly when the book you have was published, being that they seemed to delight in omitting the copyright and publication dates. And that strange delight was quite catching—scores of publishers did the same thing a hundred years ago. 😉

  • And the list goes on…

One of the fun things that I unconsciously picked up in all my study of, and handling of books was a unique sense of smell.  As lovers of books I’m sure you know what I mean. There is the exciting crisp scent of a brand new book–opened for the first time, and the lovely scent of history and the libraries of generations gone before in an old volume. The rich scent of a leather binding. The musty pages of a novel from 100 years ago…

For many years as I borrowed books from friends I could identify the house they came from simply from the hint of fragrance trapped in the pages. Then one day after operating the bookshop for awhile, I woke up to the realization that I could also identify the publisher and set of books (sometimes to the decade!) by the smell of the pages. Even after the book has traveled and after all those different houses it has absorbed scents from over the years. Now, it is not always possible. Some books I can’t identify at all by the smell alone. But there are a few that are so unique that it makes it as simple as watching the sun rise.

And there is a scientific explanation for it–it has to do with the chemical composition of the paper. In old books especially the quality of paper varied widely.  The cheaper published antique books (still nice cloth-bound hardcovers) were published with cheaper paper, and were more affordable for your average American.  Often the long-running children’s series had an economy version, and those particular series are the easiest to identify by smell.

If your interest is piqued, this video has some fascinating information for book lovers, collectors, and historians. It’s a quick summary of a rather detailed subject!

It is time consuming and hard work to date and sell books. Often it takes hours of research to find one clue about a book and it’s history. But I love it, and I heartily echo the grand 1914 poem by A. Morgan and say:

Thank God for the might of it,
The ardor–the urge, the delight of it–” *

It’s a complicated, yet immensely fun job. And I’m off to continue…


*The poem is titled “Work: A Song Of Triumph”

Thank God for the might of it,
The ardor–the urge, the delight of it–
Work that springs from the heart’s desire,
Setting the brain and the soul on fire–
Oh, what is so good as the heat of it,
And what is so glad as the beat of it,
And what is so kind as the stern command,
Challenging brain and heat and hand?

Thank God for the pace of it;
For the terrible, keen, swift race of it;
Fiery steeds in full control,
Nostrils a-quiver to greet the goal.
Work, the power that drives behind,
Guiding the purposes, taming the mind,
Holding the runaway wishes back,
Reining the will to one steady track,
Speeding the energies faster–faster,
Triumphing over disaster.
Oh, what is so good as the pain of it,
And what is so great as the gain of it?
And what is so kind as the cruel goad,
Forcing us on through the rugged road?

Thank God for the pride of it,
For the beautiful, conquering tide of it,
Sweeping the tide in its furious flood,
Thrilling the arteries, cleansing the blood,
Mastering stupor and dull despair,
Moving the dreamer to do and dare.
Oh–what is so good as the urge of it,
And what is so glad as the surge of it,
And what is so strong as the summons deep,
Rousing the torpid soul from the sleep?

Thank God for the swing of it,
For the clamoring, hammering ring of it,
Passion of labor daily hurled
On mighty anvils of the world.
Oh what is so fierce as the flame of it?
And what is so huge as the aim of it?
Thundering on through death and doubt,
Calling the plan of the Maker out.
Work, the Titan; Work, the friend,
Shaping the earth to a glorious end,
Draining the swamps and blasting the hills,
Doing whatever the spirit wills–
Rending a continent apart,
To answer the dream of the master heart.
Thank God for a world where none may shirk–
Thank God for the Splendor of Work.