Like most people, I love the smell of books. But my search for that book smell in perfume form has proved a problematic and often frustrating one.
Part of the challenge has been figuring out what it is that I want, exactly. Do I want to smell literally like a book? No, as it turns out, I don’t. Perfumes that smell literally like paper or ink are too on-the-nose for me. The best perfumes are those that bring you only 50% of the way, like those mood rings that require body heat for activation. A perfume that does all the heavy lifting for my imagination is no fun at all.
What I want is a conflation of several abstract smells. A composite aroma that captures the general atmosphere in a library or bookstore where the exhalations of hundreds of old books mingle with the acrid, chemical stink of ink and the squeaky leather of the bindings. I want the suggestion of a quiet hum of activity all around me, but also solitude and silence, a book folded open on my lap. I guess what I want is less the smell of the book and more of what the book means to me, which is an escape from the world into the tunnels of the imagination.
What do books smell like, anyway? Well, as it turns out, not all books smell the same. According to a recent article in the Guardian, books have their own unique scent coded into them just as humans do. In the article, people used a bewilderingly wide range of words to describe their favorite books, among them “fresh rusk biscuits”, “salt”, and “chocolate”, and “burned wood.”
Factors such as how they are stored, the type of binding the publisher uses, and their age all have an impact on the book’s smell. In other words, a new, never-been-cracked-open Penguin will have a completely different aroma than a 20-year-old Orion that’s been moldering away uninterrupted in a dank garage. That makes perfect sense to me.
Personally, I think I would describe the best book smells as musty, sweet-ish, and somewhere between bread and biscuits. Matija Strlič, a chemist and professor of heritage science at University College London, who was interviewed for the Guardian piece, notes that many people pick up on dusty vanilla, caused by a combination of compounds present in paper such as vanillin, lignin, and furfural, the last smelling of sweet bread.
But Matija makes a crucial point in the article when he says that “We know very well how to analyse the chemicals, but what they mean, and the emotions they trigger, is a completely different matter.” In other words, nothing in science and no single molecule in perfumery can explain why we feel a rush of emotion when we open the pages of a new book or walk into our old college library.
Perhaps, it is, as Luca Turin suggests, because the smell of books triggers a subliminal “hunger for knowledge in all of us.” Or maybe it is because we are aware – without really being aware – of the poignancy inherent to the smell: lignin and furfural are compounds released into the air as the books break down and die, a fragrant reminder that nobody and nothing, not even books, are immune to mortality.
I don’t know. One thing I do know is that just smelling the dustcover of a beloved book can open up a portal between reality and the imagination. Someone I barely knew at a party once told me that I was like the beautiful façade of a house with nothing but a series of empty rooms behind it. I was offended until he explained that it was not because I was vacuous, but because I had absented myself, slipping off into a warren of secret passageways in the mind where nobody could reach me.
To this day, nobody has diagnosed my personality quite as accurately as this stranger: I am someone who far prefers the cloistered, secret enclave of my imagined world to the real world. And the smell of books and libraries is a conduit to this safe haven of mine. Matija Strlič is right: we can identify the compounds in books that form their characteristic scent, but we cannot even begin to estimate their emotional impact.
Bibliothèque by Byredo is a lovely fragrance. It is a big, rich plummy leather with a baritone voice, kind of like the original Bottega Veneta with the volume turned up. But it doesn’t smell like any library I’ve ever been in. I suppose that it does paint a somewhat Patrician portrait of a gentleman’s private library, all the legal reference books lined up like soldiers and smelling squeakily new. But I’m a working class gal at heart, and I find the all of these “private men’s club” scents to be slightly stultifying. The faintly plummy tone is also out of place, for me: fruit is not a note naturally occurring in either a book or a library, unless it’s an apple that someone’s left in a desk somewhere.
In case it’s not clear yet, I haven’t found the one perfect fragrance that smells like a book or a library, so don’t imagine that my review of Bibliothèque is a negative one: it’s a nice fragrance, just not something that corresponds to the mental picture I’ve painted in my head.
Library, by American indie favorite Solstice Scents, on the other hand, comes a little closer. If books can smell different from one to the next, then it only makes sense that libraries smell different from one to the next too. Solstice Scents’ Library smells like a very specific library to me, namely the library at University College Dublin, where I did my undergrad.
A bit of context is important here: UCD is where the working class Irish Catholics traditionally went to get their education, because until the late 1970’s, they were banned from attending Trinity College, the Protestant university, unless they had special dispensation from a bishop. Although both colleges are now completely open to every faith and social class, I think it’s fair to say that their different evolutions have left their mark, the crux of their differences encapsulated in the smell of their respective libraries.
If you’ve ever visited Dublin and gone to see the famous Book of Kells, then you’ve been inside the Trinity Library and presumably remember the smell: Harry Potter-style rows of ancient tomes, dark lacquered wood panels, and leather-bound chairs melting into a dusty miasma that represents 425 years of learning. It is a smell that is particularly Anglo-Saxon, somehow, although if you asked me to explain what that smells like, I wouldn’t be able to.
Library from Solstice Scents, on the other hand, smells like the busy, modern inner workings of a working university library, one that cares more about the wheels of commerce than a noble lineage. There is nothing beautiful about the UCD library: an ugly, 1970’s construction, it stands there as if awkwardly plonked down by aliens. But inside, ah inside – that right there is the smell of my youth.
And Library somehow captures it. The perfume has all the acrid stench of newly minted business manuals, their cellophane wrapper just ripped off and their ink barely dry. It has the unpretentious – yet productive – whiff of grey, industrial carpet and the metallic, heated-bulb pop of strip lighting.
Later on, the perfume takes on a slight, papery sweetness and smoke, like a lone rebel lighting up a quick one at the back, the tendril of smoke snaking lazily through the air and making us poor students think longingly of dinner.
Dzing! by L’Artisan Parfumeur
Dzing! is a perfume I came to very late. For the longest time, I thought it was a clumsy slamming together of two different perfumes: a fecal Cuir de Russie-type leather on top, a Bvlgari Black rubber-vanilla on the bottom – something that, if you already owned either of those perfumes, was a bit redundant.
But with time, I’ve come to appreciate and even love Dzing! as an animal in its own right. There is an abstraction to Dzing! that isn’t present in either the Chanel or the Bvlgari, a sort of sweet, musky haze that rearranges the furniture of the scent each time, rendering the familiar unfamiliar.
Sometimes Dzing! wears as a sweet, bready musk with a tinge of caramel apples; other times, it smells of saddle soap and soft horse shit. On occasion, I smell the sensual scent of grimy skin trapped under a rubber watch strap, as well as Rich Tea biscuits, soggy cardboard, and Communion wafers.
If books are themselves an amalgamation of complex, abstract aromas and molecules, then Dzing! is just that in scent form. Like a book, Dzing! is predominantly sweet and vanillic (biscuity), but there is the unmistakable whiff of something that reminds you of its ruder animal origins – the fecal smell of just cured leather bindings, perhaps, or the moistly grimy finger imprints of previous readers. Delicious, if you can stand the sheer second-hand intimacy of the smell.
Santal 33 by Le Labo
Famously the “signature scent” of thousands of young professionals and hipsters in certain areas of New York city, I feel like Santal 33 by Le Labo has become a bit of a design cliché as of late – the olfactory equivalent of the Barcelona chair or the man bun. But just because everyone is wearing it doesn’t make it a bad fragrance. In fact, it’s pretty great, especially if you park your expectations at the door.
For one thing, despite the name, I find this to be a predominantly leather-focused scent, with a salty, green cucumberish quality that is almost aquatic. It opens with a powerful blast of chemical violet, sea salt, leather, and that aqueous herbal element, making me think each time of salty vetivers like Fleur de Sel by Miller Harris and Sea Foam by Art de Parfum.
But focusing too closely on the individual elements is of little use here, because the total effect is so forceful that you just have to give yourself over for the ride. Santal 33 is intensely masculine: full of raw, oily leather and balsam, it makes me think of a lifestyle concept store – one of those cavernous, white empty studio spaces where they place a tangle of parched white driftwood in one corner and a lone leather couch in the other.
Much later on, in the far drydown, there is the green aroma of dried coconut husks, raw and brusquely woody, and it is only then I see the reference to (Australian) sandalwood. But, in general, this is dry and woody-leathery, not lactonic or sweet.
Whenever I wear Santal 33, I am reminded of that craze for “shabby chic” that was so popular for most of the last ten years, because there is something very deliberately “antiqued” about the scent, like a modern wooden chair exposed to salty sea air to force-age it, whitewashed, and then distressed to give it the patina of age. It’s totally faux – but somehow the “fauxness” of it all becomes part of the appeal.
It reminds me of books, too. In particular in the raw, harsh chemical breeze of salt and Iso E Super whitewashing the grain of the scent, which ultimately comes off as a combination of freshly-tanned leather and newly-printed paper. It is an industrial book smell, one that belongs more to an Amazon warehouse or a newspaper printing room than a library or old book store.
But it’s also totally hipster and lifestyle-ish, with a high-gloss finish that is somewhat at odds with the raw, salty leather underneath. One of my favorite reviewers on Basenotes, Diamondflame, said it best when he called Santal 33 “a cross between the scent of a freshly printed lifestyle magazine and the interiors of a luxury leather goods shop.”
M/ Mink by Byredo
M/ Mink smells like ink. It is a perfume with a terrible reputation, and indeed, is now officially discontinued. Most people find it unbearably animalic. But I have never found it to be dirty: in fact, it is almost chemically clean, scrubbed down with so much bleach and toner ink so that it appears worn through at the edges.
Of course, the topnote of fruity bleach is where most people, upon smelling it, will lose their breakfast. But if you’re a writer or use ink in some capacity, M/ Mink will read to you as familiar and even loveable.
To me, M/Mink smells of Japanese calligraphy ink, which has a watery undertone of both fruity bleach and dried shellfish. Do you think ink smells disgusting? Then this fragrance is just not for you – don’t even attempt it. But if you love the smell of ink and as a child enjoyed the heady aroma of the school supplies closet, then give M/Mink a fighting chance.
If M/Mink went about capturing the smell of ink and that alone, I’d call it a one-trick pony and file it away in my mind as a freakish curiosity. But it’s so much more than that. In fact, it is an incredibly atmospheric scent, wrapping the ink module up in layers of creepy church dust, incense, and the melted beeswax of just blown-out candles.
M/Mink is a complex, dramatic ink scent that has garnered an unfair reputation for being too out-there to wear. It’s not, really, but you do have to be ok with the feral smell of ink and a total absence of sweetness. You’d be surprised at how many people miss sweetness in a fragrance – we’ve been reared on sugar, and it’s a hard habit to break. But for the misanthropes among us, those whose dream is being shut away in an old monastery on Skellig Michael to write out the whole bible in squid ink on vellum, then, well, M/ Mink is just the ticket. Full review here.
Ambroxan, the synthetic replacement for natural ambergris in most commercial perfumery, is a large part of M/Mink’s dry, papery, and stinky-inky character. So it’s worth mentioning that natural ambergris, either in straight-up tincture form or in attars, can also smell very much like a book at times, replicating in particular that abstract combination of fishy, bleach-like ink and dry, vanillic paper.
Pure Amber by Amouage is a case in point. Despite the name, it is not amber at all but rather, ambergris. To anyone unfamiliar with ambergris, this will be quite a shock – it is incredibly earthy and stale, like a clod of earth freshly dug up beside a marina where the carcasses of several marine mammals are rotting slowly in the sun. There is a clean dung-like facet to the aroma, but it is only slightly fecal, because it is the wet, salty marine soil smell that dominates.
Later on, other nuances drift into the picture – a dry, aromatic sandalwood, and a dry, papery vanilla tone that reminds me of the pages of old, decaying books whose pages have dried up over time. This tonality is beautiful and reminds me of the smell of driftwood, cold beaches, and old bookshops.
Books are made up of mostly organic materials such as glue, paper, leather, ink, fibers, so I guess it’s not surprising that, in addition to breaking down over the years and releasing the aromas of these materials into the air, they also absorb other odors from the atmosphere in which they are kept.
That makes sense, of course – books are made from trees, and trees breathe in. Therefore, perfumes that focus on materials that possess both a bitter, resinous side and a papery-vanillic side are reminiscent, to me, of books even if their prime artistic goal is not that of smelling like a book or paper or ink.
That’s why Eau Noire by Dior, although primarily a lavender-immortelle perfume, smells so much like paper to me in its drydown – by the time the bitter, roasted coffee of the singed lavender bud has settled down, the sweet vanilla-ish cedar begins to reveal itself, and the combination smells very much like the toasty, dry vanillin of book paper and newspaper.
I enjoy Eau Noire for this part almost exclusively. The rest of the fragrance grates on me a bit, but I’m willing to sit through it to get to its gloriously paper ending. It smells like paper that has absorbed all the aromas of a good Sunday morning: newspaper ink, coffee, and brown sugar.
Miskatonic University by BPAL
BPAL says this perfume oil smells like a “venerable New England university, whose vast library holds many rare, diabolical and obscure arcane works, including one of the few surviving legitimate copies of the Necronomicon.”
I have no idea what a Necronomicon is, nor do I intend to look it up. But in general, I think this perfume is a good example of what books smell like when their pages absorb environmental odors, sucking them in and then exhaling them over the course of decades every time the book is opened by another student.
Whoever opened this particular book was obviously drinking an illicit Irish coffee at the time, and spilled a little on the pages – sweet, creamy coffee with a hit of whisky, mingling with the musty vanillin dryness of the pages of the book.
Like many indie perfume oils, this one nails the creative brief in that it captures the exact scent of an imagined scenario; but whether you’ll find it pleasant to wear is another thing altogether. There is, for me, something cloying and queasy-making about such a literal Irish coffee note, and the initial effect is like being breathed on by someone with coffee breath. It’s almost too intimate a smell.
I like it much more later on when the coffee dies down a bit and allows the dustier, woodier notes to come through: it really does smell like the pages of a book in a house where coffee is being prepared. The paper note is enticingly musty and sweet, with a faintly soggy cardboard edge that reminds me of Holy Communion wafers. In a good way.
Messe de Minuit by ETRO
I’m always surprised when people describe Messe de Minuit as a gloomy fragrance, but that’s probably because I own the most recent iteration, by now long denuded of all the “damp cellar” nihilism that originally scared the bejeezus out of buyers.
What’s it like now? Well, imagine a gloomy Italian cathedral with the flood lights suddenly turned on and the doors thrown open to let the fresh air in. It’s an incredibly cheerful smell – bitter orange peel and lemons mixed with the lime-peel and pine brightness of unlit frankincense.
The older version, of which I only had a tiny sample, was quite different. There, in the drydown, the dour, fungal dampness of myrrh mixed with a powdery, spicy benzoin to produce an aroma that recalled very strongly the scent of mildewy paper and the slightly metallic, inert air of a closed-up sacristy.
An incredibly evocative smell, I can see why ETRO might have wanted to tone it down for their customer base – not everyone wants to wear the smell of books whose pages are sodden and green with rising damp. There is the unsettling suggestion of familial neglect about it. Pity, though, because I rather like perfumes that sacrifice wearability and overall pleasantness for the gut-punch of effect.
The Raven by Alkemia
Another indie perfume oil, this time by Alkemia. American indie perfumers outclass everyone when it comes to nailing a very specific atmosphere or scene. It also doesn’t hurt that they cost in the region of $11 to $19 per 5ml.
This is how Alkemia describes The Raven: “For those who are nyctophiliacs (lovers of the night), a midnight elixir of shadows and mystery blended at the dark of the moon – ebony heartwood, black amber, piper nigrum, blackseed (habbatul barakah), black Bengal cardamom, black ink, nigella (black coriander), black iris, violet leaves, and leather.”
The Raven is a pretty brutal ink scent – not the fishy Japanese calligraphy type of ink, which is rather delicate – but black ink from a fountain pen that has a certain scrubby cheapness to it. It’s brilliant. It opens with dirty chlorine and the snap of cheap black vinyl, the salty, aqueous smell of seawater and brine floating up from underneath.
The blend is slightly harsh and chemical at first, just like fresh ink, but the fruity, purple violet smell soon softens the jagged edge and the foresty, piney amber adds a sweetly resinous undertone. After about 5 minutes, The Raven is humming along in a comfortable, beaten leather jacket track.
I may be biased, because I am both a Poe fan and my favorite hiking place is a huge forested area known locally as The Raven, but this scent is special. If I were to buy it, it would slot right into the group of scents I mentally classify as my “writing” scents – those that smell like ink, mold, black leather, campfire smoke, or sinister forests such as M/Mink, Sycomore, Vanilla Smoke, and By Kilian’s Pure Oud.
What about you? Do you have any favorite scents that remind you of books, libraries, or ink?