What role does the multisensoriality, particularly the smell of books, play in our reading experience?

Scientific Study 2016 12 Pages

Sociology - Miscellaneous


What role does the multisensoriality, particularly the smell of books,

play in our reading experience?

Word Count: 1924

This text was written by a non-native English speaker. Please excuse any errors or inconsistencies.

Have you ever taken a big whiff when you enter an old bookstore or a library? Just as the smell of seaside, freshly baked bread, or a new car, some people love the smell of books. I was amazed to see people even sell the musty smell of old books in a paper tube for $9.99 on the Internet.[1] The fondness for the smell of seaside makes you travel to the seaside more, the affection for the smell of bread makes you stop by at bakeries more, or the preference for the smell of new cars encourage you to save up to purchase a car. My question is, does the aroma of books, to some extent, lead people to read? How and to what extent does it affect our reading experience? To what extent is reading a multisensory experience, particularly smell, as opposed to a purely cognitive one? If it does shape our reading experience, how and why? The reason I chose this topic was that the smell is one sense from five senses that technology hasn’t been able to recreate, yet. I’m definitely not trying to argue that printed books outweigh e-books and call for abandoning kindle. This paper started with my curiosity about how the volatile digression products of paper and hundred of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released from the book contribute to the pleasure of reading and result in the act of acquiring knowledge.[2] Therefore, I conducted a survey among 25 students and studied the online discussion thread of the smell of books. This essay will consist of two parts: 1. the aroma’s internal influence: how do we feel about reading 2. its external function: how it affects how we present ourselves to the public.

In order to find out how many people notice the smell, how much they care, and how much it means to them, I conducted a survey among 25 students,18-25 years old. 10 are from Asian countries, of which 5 are females and 5 are males. 10 others are from European countries, also half female and half male. The even sexual and regional split is because the odour perception and odour categorization are gendered and regionally different.[3] Then I randomly chose a person from the 20 respondents with the snowballing method, asking them to pass on to their friend and a friend of their friend, and etc, just in case those 20 chosen respondent are friends of mine so we might share the smilier opinions. The result of the survey showed that:

1. Before or when reading a book, 19 glance through its front and back cover; 10 smell the ink and the paper; 8 feel the texture of the pages; 4 turn the pages to listen to the sound they generate.

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2. 92% of the respondents recall the unique smells of old books, new books, newspaper, and magazine respectively, which means 92% of the student readers have noticed the aroma and are able to differentiate the smell of various types of books. Some even argue that for magazines, Scientists smell different than Vogue, which sounds quite interesting to me. I wonder if someone will find Codex Leicester, a collection of scientific writings by Leonardo da Vinci smells different from Aleppo Codex, a manuscript of Hebrew bible not because of their actual smells but the presumption of their distinct context. Could it be that not only sensory reception affect our perception but also our perception shapes our sensory reception?

3. Three people think reading is purely a cognitive experience, nine participants think it’s both cognitive and sensory but cognitive part is more important, twelve respondents think the cognitive and sensory are equally important when reading,


[1] Smell of Books, (n.d.). An aerosol ebook enhancer.

[2] Telegraph.co.uk, (2009). The smell of old books analysed by scientists.

[3] Chrea C. et al. (2003). Culture and odor categorization: agreement between cultures depends upon the odors. 1st ed. ElsevierLtd., p.2.

Ferdenzi, C. et al (2012). Variability of Affective Responses to Odors: Culture, Gender, and Olfactory Knowledge. Chemical Senses, 38(2), pp.175-186.


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Title: What role does the multisensoriality, particularly the smell of books,  play in our reading experience?