You may think that scent is a combination of the ink and the paper, but it's really the breakdown of lignin in the paper that creates that smell.
Paper is made from organic material, and that material contains lignin, part of the cell walls of almost all dry land plants.
Lignin is the second most abundant natural polymer in the world. Cellulose is the most abundant.
A chemical analysis of the smell of old books found that the scent is a complex mixture of hundreds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released into the air from the paper with dust and other particulates in the book’s life adding to the aromatic "cocktail."
By contrast, new books smell the way they do because of the chemicals used in their manufacture.
I'll buy just about any old book that strikes my fancy except for one that reeks of stale cigarette/cigar smoke.
I can deodorize an old book, but you really can't deodorize one that came from the home of a smoker unless you purchase an ozone generator which we did a few weeks ago to clean the air in our garage because we are surrounded by smokers.
The smoke drifts into our garage when we open it, and it lingers until our garage smells like a smoky nightclub.
The ozone generator really works! I'm going to try it the next time I have some old smelly books.
In the meantime, here's how I've always removed the smell from used books I buy. One caveat. Do not use baking soda on a valuable antique book or a damp book because it may harm the old paper.
How To Deodorize a Book
1. Sprinkle baking soda (yep, the kind you buy for the kitchen) throughout the book—try to get some on every page.
2. Place the book in a Ziplok bag and leave it for at least a week.
3. Remove it from the bag, shake the baking powder out and sniff the book. If it still smells, repeat the process. If the book is really smelly, you may have to leave it for a longer period of time and/or repeat the process a few times.
Keep a box of baking soda in the kitchen, and you never have to pass up a bargain book again.