“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.