Scent of a Bookworm

by Joan Harvey

POZZO: Which of you smells so bad?

ESTRAGON: He has stinking breath and I have stinking feet.

POZZO: I must go.

― Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

There are many perplexing things in the world, but one of the more perplexing, only recently discovered by me, is that a substantial number of people, most of whom I assume to be women, wish to smell like old books. While it is easy to have a passion for, say, invertebrates, or designer sneakers, without necessarily wanting to smell like a pink-faced broad-nosed weevil or a favorite pair of old Nikes, apparently book lovers are different. It appears that for some bookworms, parting with their yellowing bound volumes is so distressing they need a way to carry the reminder with them though the day. And one way to carry around these literary longings is to douse themselves in the scent of books or sometimes whole libraries.

I came across the phrase “excessive bibliophilia” in Wayne Koestenbaum’s book Ultramarine. A newish book, so one without much smell. Koestenbaum was referring to Queen Christina, but I wonder if excessive bibliophilia doesn’t equally apply to those who feel they must smell like old libraries even in the boudoir. Perhaps while reading de Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir? After looking into book-themed perfumes I’m surprised there isn’t one with that name.

There are old books and there are old books. Sometimes opening one that I have innocently purchased for 3.99 plus postage can feel like I’ve inhaled enough mold spores to start growing a very large inner book colony. The internet tells me that molds commonly isolated from moldy books include species of Aspergillus, Penicillium, Cladosporium, Trichoderma, Chaetomium, Stachybotrys, Epicoccum and others. Trichoderma, Chaetomium, and Stachybotrys are strong producers of the enzyme cellulase that breaks down paper.

Therefore I suspect that the scent of old books is partially the scent of old mold on books. Desirable? Apparently for some. Of course perfumes have changed a lot since the elegant days of Shalimar and Chanel No. 5. I, for example, own a sample of a perfume named Goth as Fuck, as well as one named Chipmunk. We won’t go into what this says about me – but it does show that, just as nail polish has moved beyond red and pale pink to acid green and cement gray, so the range of perfumes keeps expanding. Goth as Fuck, by the way, is in the category of the kind of perfumes I am partial to, a combo of smut and incense, the holy and profane. As someone said, it smells like his favorite sex shop in L.A. combined with a cathedral he visited in Prague. Actually I prefer a more refined perfume known as Timbuktu, the scent of which for me also has holy/dirty connotations. although many I’m certain would disagree. In the book Perfumes: The Guide (as a book person, of course I have a book on perfumes, as well as, naturally, the more famous book Perfume), Luca Turin writes of Timbuktu, “No perfume has ever privileged radiance over impact to quite this extent.” One person’s radiance is another’s smoke and smut.

Unfortunately my ability to review perfume is comparable to a friend, stone deaf, who writes occasionally about music, or to another friend, almost blind, who for many years ran an art gallery. I used to have a very keen (though not terribly educated) sense of smell, but then, due to sinus issues I lost it almost completely. Fortunately it did return, though not nearly as sharply as before. And while I’d previously worn perfume, afterwards I became more interested, almost as a way to reeducate my nose. Or the way people who are handicapped still perform in sports, but at a somewhat different level than those without physical disadvantages. Admittedly I haven’t the discernment of most people who write about perfume. I can tell one perfume from another, but I’m vague about top notes versus middle notes and so on. I can tell rose from gardenia, but I don’t know all the isotopes and molecules that educated sniffers frequently cite. I have no idea what quince smells like, though I’m told it is prominent in Chipmunk.

Most of my perfume sniffing comes through samples, but it is also true that a few drops on the wrist from a tiny vial can be very different from a spray from a large bottle. A few drops of a sample of YSL’s Tuxedo got raves from guests at a dinner party, but when I bought a large bottle the spray sent out an intense odor of patchouli that completely filled the whole house and the neighboring surroundings, and made me fear wearing it in public. Especially in Boulder, where the lycra-covered gluten-phobic alternative medicine crowd either faints or screams if any scent other than that from bicycling sweat happens to cross their olfactory passages. I understand the unpleasantness of bad perfumes, and to a lesser extent the danger from artificial chemicals, but I also remember being pleased when I came across the Irish priest John O’Donohue describing the sensual delights of being in Paris and inhaling all the wonderful scents of women he passed on the street.

But back to books. Scent of a book is not a scent it had occurred to me to desire, until I found that perfumers were manufacturing a something that until then I hadn’t wanted, but suddenly needed to try. Oh, Capitalism, how you perpetually manage to create a craving for something I definitely do not need.

I was first made aware of book perfumes from a brand called, appropriately, Commodity. Their perfume is simply called Book, so not necessarily old book. But because it was the first book-oriented perfume I came across. I had to try it. It turns out that Book has been one of the hits of the company, with a “cult-like following” unlike say Wool.

Book is nice in a small dose – but would I have associated it with books if I hadn’t been informed to think that way to begin with? Perhaps it smells like a book if that book had been doused in perfume. The blurb does not suggest so much that it smells like a book as that it smells like the time when you are reading, the “warmth of a quiet moment curled up with a good book.” A lot of reviewers on the website Fragrantia think it smells of pickles and dill.

But, alas, now I was intrigued and began my tumble down an odorous rabbit hole. (Of course there is a perfume named Alice. And a slew of cheap Wonderland-themed perfumes, based on the Disney movie. Eww.) Everyone is getting into the act. The great Portland bookstore Powell’s sells its own cologne, a “book-scented” unisex perfume called, appropriately Powell’s, in which “the heady fragrance of old paper creates an atmosphere ripe with mood and possibility. Invoking a labyrinth of books; secret libraries; ancient scrolls; and cognac swilled by philosopher-kings.” It is listed as having notes of wood, violet, and biblichor, though the people reviewing it say it smells of vanilla. I had to look up biblichor; it turns out it’s a relatively new word to describe the particular smell that belongs to old books. It combines the Greek words biblio (book) with ichor (the fluid that flows like blood in the veins of the gods).

From Word Nerd:

To be fair, biblichor is not a scent that everyone loves, and it can be rather misunderstood by those who just don’t get the delight that can be found in the musty, ink and paper and glue mixed with age and sweetness scent that accompanies old tomes. Biblichor is created by the breakdown of chemical compounds and there is an actual sweet and woodsy scent that belongs to old books (thank you science!). Each book has its own unique scent, sometimes almond, sometimes vanilla, sometimes coffee or chocolate, sometimes a smokey, sweet mixture of the above, all of them described with the word biblichor.

Of course, why stop with the smell of books if one is a bibliophile? Why not a scent of madeleines dipped in linden tea? Or Joyce’s horse piss and rotted straw. Or Molly Bloom’s armpits. Or some combination of garlic, farts, and stinky feet while reading Beckett. (Now I’m reminded of the scratch and sniff movie version of John Water’s Polyester, called Odorama, which I was fortunate enough to catch when it came out.)

Virginia Woolf apparently did not like perfume, which hasn’t stopped perfumers from making Bloomsbury and Orlando themed perfumes. Orlando, the perfume, has mixed reviews – some like it, but different people on Fragrantia describe the dry down as smelling like dried saliva, or moth balls, or the urinary cake in the men’s room. I will give it a miss.

I’m tempted to think that with my predilection for incense and smut, I’d like a perfume called Bataille, which as far as I know does not exist, but I’m also tempted to think that people who make perfumes and people who read are generally quite different, and that someone might concoct something disappointing and horrible. A perfume called Fleur du Mal, a floral naturally, sounded interesting, but reviews describe it as fruity and pretty. Sacrilege. There used to be a perfume called, cleverly, Fleur du Mâle, which sounds a little dirtier, and came in a tacky white bottle shaped like a man’s torso, but which has long since been discontinued.

A question I’ve let rest in all this is that perfumes, in addition to covering up body odor, used to be a way to entice members of the opposite (or at least the desired) sex. But would someone follow me around if I smell like say, an old version of Moby Dick? Or perhaps a very yellowed Gallimard edition of Sartre’s Les Mots? Do women wear these perfumes to attract scholars or poets or possibly librarians? More likely they wear them only to be more like the things they most desire, which are not other humans, but rather the books they create.

The company Sucreabeille or in English, Sugarbee, the concoctors of Goth as Fuck, a small punkish perfume company that perpetually turns out new perfumes with names like 100% That Bitch and Rictus, makes a perfume called The Librarian. It has a drawing on the label of a woman with a somewhat severe face and glasses and an awesome bod and breasts. She’s wearing a long skirt but also very high heels. She is the sensualist hidden behind an austere front. “The Librarian takes notes and catalogues while sipping a large mug of hot buttered rum laced with espresso. A whisper of patchouli follows her through the stacks.” I confess I hadn’t known that librarians were tippling to get through their days, but why not? Sucreabeille also makes a perfume called Book Witch, with a younger version of the librarian on the label, complete with granny glasses, an elaborate hairdo, and, of course, books. There is practically a whole novel of description about her on the website. Sucreabeille also makes a scent called Crafty Witch, which smells a lot like paste.

A line of scents from a company called Imaginary Authors each supposedly relate to a title of a book by one of these imaginary novelists. For instance The Cobra and the Canary has scents of lemon, leather, and asphalt. Apparently you can get all the joys of not reading a book that was (fortunately) never written in a perfume. “Hurtling into the depths of decadence and desolation” the copy tells us. I’ll pass on this as well.

After the aforementioned Book, The Librarian, and Book Witch, none of which I particularly loved, I got seven more book-related samples from a perfume sample company called Surrender to Chance. They sell two scent collections related to books, one called Old Books Beginner Sampler and one called Old Library Beginner Sampler. There is definitely a market out there. Some of the scents I actively hated, but three were very nice.

The one to my mind that most mimicked the pleasant, not too moldy smell of old books, was Antique Books by Black Baccaro. I find I still have no desire to smell like old books, but for someone who does, this would be a good choice. (The company also makes Book Fair if you prefer a newer scholastic book smell. And Occult Bookstore, to use with your favorite tarot deck. No doubt soon we can expect Banned Books, to be worn in Florida and Texas.) My favorite of the book-related perfumes I tried is called, appropriately, Bibliophilia, and made by a small company called Nui Cobalt Designs. It has a pleasant non-cloying sweetness and supposedly smells of ink as well. It seems to be universally loved in the on-line reviews I could find. Of course it is out of stock. The same company also make a perfume, also much loved by reviewers, also out of stock, called Coimetrophilia: Love of Cemeteries. Coimetrophilia is a word, and also a state of mind, I did not hitherto know. Somehow I doubt there are as many cemetery-related perfumes as book perfumes, but that is an avenue I haven’t yet explored.

Of the library-themed perfumes, Fueguia 1833’s Biblioteca de Babel was the only one I cared for, though it didn’t smell like a library to me. It had what I thought was a wonderful sandalwood scent and I personally have never been in a library that smelled of sandalwood. I’m not even partial to sandalwood, but I really liked this. The copy mentions that it was inspired by the Borges story, and I’ve always loved Bruegel’s Tower of Babel, so possibly I was preprogrammed to find it good. As it turns out it doesn’t have sandalwood at all, but rather cabreuva wood, a type of South and Central American mahogany, fortunately not endangered. Admittedly, I am an untrustworthy guide. And perhaps I’d be happier with flooring-themed perfumes than those reeking of literature.

There is a cosmetics company called Philosophy; I foresee great marketing opportunities for them. How about Dasein, smelling of Mrs. Heidegger’s woolen knitting, the cozy pine scent of a little cabin in the Black Forest, and the tiniest little whiff of Third Reich. Or perhaps Being and Nothingness: a strong blend of coffee, cigarettes, and bad faith, creating the exciting aroma of a Paris café in 1943 and proximity to Simone de Beauvoir. Or Beyond Good and Evil, a blast of scent so strong that it will knock over the weak at heart and immediately demonstrate your will to power.

But enough. I’m not a convert. Perhaps my bibliophilia is restricted only to books. Maybe it is time for a new olfactory theme. What will start it off? Fat Electrician? Hermit Coat? Bat? Rictus? Lumberjack? Should I go for the cemetery theme after all and try Graveyard? Samples of each are available on Surrender to Chance. Or, maybe I should go with Death and Floral’s The Library Burning Down With Us : “Burnt edges of books, the overpowering scent of gasoline wafting around the wooden banister, wax candles on a desk melting.” No, I prefer my libraries unburned. Which brings me back to the radiant Timbuktu, a scent I can now associate with its fabled libraries, and even more with its brave librarians, who, a decade ago, smuggled hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts out of the city when fundamentalists threatened to destroy them, thereby saving them to be studied (and no doubt smelled) by scholars of the future.