Perfume Library : The Smell of Books

Renoirbook

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” wrote Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges. Ever since I moved out of my parents’ house, I decided that I will make my own version of an earthly paradise by investing efforts into my library. For years I have lived in apartments where the only pieces of furniture were the overspilling bookshelves. These days we have added a table and a bed to our Spartan living arrangements. An interior designer friend once drew up a plan that would maximize the use of space in our apartment. Her sketch was full of light, cream colored cushions and purple window dressings. She suggested that I move half of my books to storage. Her sketch is languishing behind one of the bookshelves. The books are still with me.

I will not describe the thrill of finding a great book that moves and inspires me. Instead, I will talk of the rarely mentioned aspect, but the one that bibliophiles find irresistible—the smell of books. It encompasses such an interesting range, from the inky bitterness of freshly printed pages to the vanilla sweetness of old volumes. I have a crumbling 19th century French poetry compilation that I cannot even leaf through for fear of it falling apart. I only lift it and sniff it gingerly—it smells of iris root and cedarwood shavings. No matter how careful I am, the tiny yellow flakes cling to my fingers and I carry this scent with me like a fine perfume. My grandmother’s books that were stored in her damp house have a whiff of mildew and amber about them. The cookbooks I ordered from a store in Mumbai smell faintly of mothballs, and sometimes I get fooled into thinking that I am surrounded by a particularly indolic jasmine—the scent of indoles is very much like that of mothballs and ink.

Naturally, since I get such a rush of pleasure through the scent of books, I also look for it in a perfume bottle. The first fragrance that transported me to a library full of leather bound volumes was Etro Messe de Minuit. Its combination of wet woods, smoky incense and beeswax might be odd–it reminds some reviewers of a mildew covered basement, but to me it is the romantic smell of old books and melting candles. The musty earthiness of Miller Harris L’Air de Rien likewise evokes the yellowing pages filled with beautiful calligraphy. On the other hand, cool iris fragrances like The Different Company Bois d’Iris and Serge Lutens Iris Silver Mist are redolent of the papermaking shops, with their mélange of blond wood and wet paper aromas.

Alongside my “liquid library” perfumes, there are fragrances that do not smell of books per se, but rather of the characters and events depicted in my favorite novels. When I wear Frédéric Malle Iris Poudré, I think not of its sumptuous iris and rose bouquet, but of Anna Karenina’s dress as described in Leo Tolstoy’s novel: “Anna was… in a black, low-cut, velvet gown, showing her full throat and shoulders, that looked as though carved in old ivory.” Some fragrances inspire such strong associations that I discover that I do not so much smell them as read them. Serge Lutens collection seems like an offshoot of Scheherazade’s tales, where one story leads to the next and where the glint of mandarin morphs into the darkest of woods, as if by the jinn’s evocation. In the reverse association, Robert Burns’s A Red, Red Rose song conjures up a voluptuous, honeyed scent. As I read “O my Luve’s like the melodie That’s sweetly play’d in tune,” I can almost smell Jean Patou Joy.

What about you? Do you have a fragrance that reminds you of a library or a perfume that evokes one of your favorite books?

Painting: Young Woman Reading a Book 1875-1876 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

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47 Comments

  • carmencanada: I’ve always associated iris root with paper and cardboard — cassie farnèse too, which means that Farnesiana smells both of paper and almond glue to me. Woodier treatments of vanilla can smell of old books, though usually that’s more of a facet of a fragrance than the entire form of it.
    As for books, oh dear… Though they are dust traps in my old pre-WWI apartment which is a dust trap in itself, they are my greatest luxury and the living room is gradually being invaded by shelves. March 5, 2012 at 9:37am Reply

  • Beatis: L’Heure Bleu reminds me – among other things – of antique books. Very comforting; when I was on chemotherapy there were many perfumes I couldn’t wear, among which L’Heure Bleu. I used to go to the bedroom and sniff it from the bottle. It conjured up images of hazy days in late summer, old houses filled with antique books, their windows open and whiffs of freshly mowed grass coming in. It always calmed me down enormously. March 5, 2012 at 9:50am Reply

  • Kurt: Cozé from PG is my library-smell. It’s a gentleman’s library and besides the smell of old books there is also a trail of pipe-tabacco… March 5, 2012 at 10:31am Reply

  • pam: What beautiful writing! Yes, keep the books and forget the “interior design”. I, too, would rather live with books. I recently bought Vol de Nuit and that smell is very like paper, woods, but then too it has the connotation of being named after a book. March 5, 2012 at 10:40am Reply

  • nstephens@beachcroft.com: Your designer friend’s plans sound beautiful …..for someone else! I could borrow from P, TG and say Dzing! but truth be told Dzing! is primarily animal and straw to me. At the weekend I treated myself to a PdN candle, Chant d’Iris, which as far as I can make out from the french description on the website is intended to have library associations. It is lovely, though more violet/wood to me. And so my favourite library/book scent evocations are two candles – Durance’s Cuir et Iris and Diptyque’s Feu de Bois and for personal scent L’Artisan Tea for Two.
    Nicola March 5, 2012 at 10:43am Reply

  • Cherylquimby.blogspot.com: Great post! Perfume, words, books–they are deeply entangled for me. The deliberate pairings (Portrait of a Lady, Vol de unit, Chamade) usually don’t match my subjective imagination of what scents given books evoke. Like others above, I associate iris with the smell of books. And coumarin, too. March 5, 2012 at 11:27am Reply

  • alyssa: I love this essay, V. And I love both the moldering vanilla smell of tiny used bookshops–especially when they are on a busy city street–and that bright/bitter smell of new paper and ink. It’s an odd feeling to think about loving those smells at this moment of digitalization.

    I’m so glad you said that about iris root! I have always thought of it as having a cardboard facet or phase (some vanillas, too). March 5, 2012 at 12:37pm Reply

  • Victoria: Which is why dusting is one of my least favorite household chores! 🙂

    Frederic Malle Une Fleur de Cassie smells like a Japanese paper making shop to me. And also of someone’s warm skin. March 5, 2012 at 12:51pm Reply

  • Victoria: Such a beautiful imagery! Perfume is a great way to find comfort, as I myself have discovered. We heal much faster when we are surrounded by beautiful things. March 5, 2012 at 12:53pm Reply

  • Victoria: The smell of old books and pipe tobacco must be one of the best combinations. So, I am adding Cozé to my “perfumes to revisit” list. March 5, 2012 at 1:14pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you, Pam! I find that as my perfumes age, they start smelling more and more like old books. And as the cardboard breaks down, it starts to smell more and more like vanilla. Fascinating, isn’t it? March 5, 2012 at 1:16pm Reply

  • Victoria: Nicola, exactly, her plans are wonderful for a different person and a different place. Plus, we are still not settled in one place, so investing too much into a rented apartment doesn’t make sense.
    I am not familiar with Durance’s Cuir et Iris, but you’ve mentioned some of my other favorites, so I will definitely have to look for it. March 5, 2012 at 1:18pm Reply

  • Victoria: I agree, the deliberate pairings are never that successful for me, because I think that often the stories are made up after the perfume creation. Like you, I prefer to look for my own personal associations. March 5, 2012 at 1:19pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you for this image, Alyssa. I right away think of my favorite used book store in Philadelphia. I still miss it.
    And also of the smell of my favorite library, The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where I spent many hours. March 5, 2012 at 1:45pm Reply

  • behemot: Victoria, hold on to your books as long as you can! Yesterday I was looking at mine (some standing on shelves and the rest of them in boxes) and decided to buy another bookshelf. I have just finished painting it in the garage. No Kindle for me in the near future!
    Love books. I have been to “designer” homes with no bookshelves, with everything else color coordinated. No thanks.
    As of perfumes smelling of books – definitely Dzing, maybe Heure Bleue. March 5, 2012 at 3:19pm Reply

  • Victoria: I made this discovery about iris after stopping by a paper making shop to meet a friend. She showed me how the paper is made and I even tried my hand at it. The whole place smelled of iris, which right away made me think of Iris Silver Mist. Who knew that this elegant, austere composition could be an ultimate book lover perfume!

    I think that you already found a man with a perfect taste! March 5, 2012 at 3:29pm Reply

  • Victoria: As much as I admire my friend’s home, I know that it isn’t for me. I love my piles of books on the floor–not so much husband who being a foot taller than I am keeps bumping into them–and I love just holding my favorites, whether it is the French poetry book I mentioned above or a second hand copy of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. Each has its own particular scent.

    I spend enough time on the computer, so when I want to read, I prefer the paper books. March 5, 2012 at 3:34pm Reply

  • Perfumista8: I’ll never forget the smell of the Long Room in the library at Trinity College Dublin. This is where they keep their oldest books in huge oak bookcases. The mix of wood, musty paper, ink and leather is a most beautiful scent.

    CB I Hate Perfume has a literal translation of such a place in the scent titled “In the Library.” It’s worth sampling – the top notes especially capture that moment when you first open a book that has been in storage/shelved for years. March 5, 2012 at 3:51pm Reply

  • Andy: I had heard once that paper sometimes smells like vanilla because the tree wood used to make paper often contains vanillin. I don’t know if this would explain that wonderful powdery vanilla smell of old books, but it works for me! March 5, 2012 at 3:53pm Reply

  • Victoria: I’ve heard this too. I know that vanillin used in perfumery is usually the kind that is derived from lignin materials, and lignin is one of the main component of woods. March 5, 2012 at 4:01pm Reply

  • Victoria: I will definitely try it, thank you very much for another great recommendation.
    Your description of the Long Room reminded me of my university library and how much I loved it. March 5, 2012 at 4:21pm Reply

  • The Siren: Have read this post three times, it’s that good. I realized now why I love SL Iris Silver Mist so much: it reminds me of the smell of the Strand bookstore here in NY. If I could find something that smelled like some of my older books–the ones from the 1920s, say–I would wear it strictly for myself and it would cheer me always. And if I were still single, I’d probably fall in love with a man who smelled my wrist that was redolent of a 100-year-old book and said “now THAT’S sexy.” March 5, 2012 at 3:10pm Reply

  • Elisa: Apres l’Ondee reminds me of envelope adhesive — I think it’s the iris root playing with the heliotropin? March 5, 2012 at 11:41pm Reply

  • Gina: Smell Bent has a fragrance called One that has an amazing musty book note. I love it:) March 6, 2012 at 12:54am Reply

  • Amer: To me the pure spikenard oil is very reminiscent of old books with yellow coarse pages. It is exactly the musty scent of paper that has absorbed moisture and dried repetidly. It also has a fishy aspect that I happen to find in the scent of old books and I believe it comes from the glue (pehaps fish-glue) that was used on the bindings. In all not a very pleasant aroma and I don’t understand how it was used as a main ingredient in ancient perfumery. I only find the connotation pleasing because it reminds me of old fairy tale books my grandmother used to read to me. March 6, 2012 at 9:28am Reply

  • Victoria: Heliotropin does that to me sometimes. I think that some brands of glue were scented with it, so it is a reverse association. March 6, 2012 at 12:15pm Reply

  • Victoria: Mmmm, another fragrance to add to my list! It is growing. 🙂 March 6, 2012 at 12:15pm Reply

  • Victoria: Yes, sometimes discovering old perfumery recipes can be baffling. Some combinations produce distinctly unpleasant odors, but then again, maybe it depends on what they were meant to cover up. March 6, 2012 at 12:17pm Reply

  • Lynn Morgan: Thanks,Victoria , for this lovely tribute to actual, physical books! ( I am writing this on an iPad; the irony is not lost.) We seem to have lost all reverence for objects, and with it our respect for the honorable, and sometimes, sacred act of making something by hand, or creating something that can be held, touched and understood through the senses, and not just the abstract intellect.Books are an amazing fusion of the cerebral and the sensual. I love the smell of books, and the meditative ritual of slowly turning pages, flipping back to review or reconsider ideas, information or characters that confused me, etc. An iPad or a Kindle is an amusing toy (a bitch to type on, though). But it is no substitute for an actual book, in the same way that Amazon is no substitute for the wonderful, but one increasingly rare experience of browsing shelves with no particular goal in mind, and discovering a book you never knew you wanted to read, or having a well read and engaged book seller recommend something that turns out to be a perfect, yet unexpected treat, or getting to meet a writer you admire in a book signing event. It lacks the possibility of serendipity, and the opportunity for human contact. Books create communities.Living through your keyboard is like reading about perfume but never smelling it or feeling it on your skin. March 6, 2012 at 6:01pm Reply

  • Victoria: “Books are an amazing fusion of the cerebral and the sensual. I love the smell of books, and the meditative ritual of slowly turning pages, flipping back to review or reconsider ideas, information or characters that confused me, etc.”

    That’s such a nice way to put it, Lynn! Thank you. March 7, 2012 at 10:07am Reply

  • maggiecat: How can you trust anyone whose house isn’t full of books? March 7, 2012 at 10:08am Reply

  • Victoria: You know what I've seen–and it scared me–a house where books were used for the decoration purposes. Their colors matched the furniture and other fixtures and the sizes were identical to create neat rows. They were blank inside! Brrr…. March 7, 2012 at 10:15am Reply

  • Julie: Barbara Bui has always smelled like old paperbacks to me. Love it. March 7, 2012 at 6:59pm Reply

  • Victoria: I missed when it got discontinued. The powdery almond note was so appealing…. March 7, 2012 at 9:11pm Reply

  • civava: Wow, great article. I’m a fan of books too. I can’t get out of the bookstore without buying one. Now I’m buying books for my daughter and she loves them. I also adore libraries. At the town we lived in was a small and smelly library. There were almost only old books from bottom to top and in a old house with wooden floor and a table form 1960 or even older….I can still remember the smell. My dream is working in an old library of Alexandria in Egypt. And then I wake up in my office…;-).
    Almonds remind me of paper glue and perfumes reminding me of library is also L’Air de Rien, Like This by EldO and Jasmine and cigarettes gives me an image of reading salon with leather sofas, heavy carpets, readers are smoking pipes and cigars, drinking whiskey and they are sweaty because climate humidity is high. All this lingers in the air together with the smell of books. March 9, 2012 at 4:51am Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you! I wonder what the Bibliotheca Alexandrina inaugurated in 2002 is like.

    I read your comment last night, and when I saw your description of Jasmin et Cigarette, I rushed to put it on. Yes, I could see it all! March 9, 2012 at 1:57pm Reply

  • civava: It is my great wish to visit this library. I hope someday this whish comes true.

    I’m glad you’ve got the same impression. I just got the picture in my head in the moment. March 10, 2012 at 2:00am Reply

  • Mike: Very well written and researched article.Perufume certainly smells better than mothballs. March 19, 2012 at 9:04pm Reply

  • Lucy: There’s something about Aftelier Sepia that reminds me during one phase of dry down of ink on an open book lying in the sun. I used to do etching, and rubbing ink into the metal plate, and the damp cotton paper lifting it off into a print, then the drying within leaves of blotter paper — I clearly recall that very characteristic black linseed oil scent. Fresh ink on cotton paper has such pleasurable associations April 28, 2012 at 12:46pm Reply

  • Noele Neidig: Gardenia Petale by Van Cleef & Arpels has a “new book” aspect to it. It reminds me a bit of classy stationary. Gorgeous scent! October 22, 2012 at 9:49am Reply

  • Noele Neidig: Oh, and there is this scent: http://www.geekologie.com/2012/07/perfume-that-makes-you-smell-like-a-book.php October 22, 2012 at 10:54am Reply

  • Mattie Lennon: I am looking for various smells, Woodland, wet-laundry, campfire etc, in aerosol form. There was a company “Smell -That” which supplied smells but they seem to have gone out of business. Any suggestions? November 8, 2012 at 9:30am Reply

  • ADVA: Isn’t this the very idea which inspired Geza Schoen’s “Paper Passion” ? July 10, 2013 at 6:26am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, that’s exactly it. From reading about Paper Passion, I think that it’s the smell of new books that it’s meant to capture. I’m still curious about it. July 10, 2013 at 8:06am Reply

  • Melinda: I really enjoyed reading this post! As you know by now, books and perfume are two of my absolute favourite things!

    I have a guest post today, an article calledScented Reviews where the guest writer wrote about classics. I was searching for similar posts out of interest and came upon yours. I loved how one of my favourite perfume bloggers love books too. March 28, 2014 at 9:44am Reply

    • Victoria: That’s a fun idea for a post! Thank you for sharing, Melinda. 🙂 March 28, 2014 at 3:06pm Reply

  • Shaumyika Sharma: I am very curious about ‘Paper Passion’ (by Steidl with *Wallpaper?). I also really like ‘In the Library’ by Christopher Brosius. June 15, 2014 at 2:35am Reply

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