The smell of books is intoxicating.
But just like all senses, descriptions of scent are very subjective. What does a book smell like? Is it the warm yet acrid aroma of bleached paper and toner, as found in a modern bestseller? Decomposition of a 1940s paperback, printed back when paper was still treated with acid? And then there’s my personal favourite, the combination of mildewed leather, dust, and India ink that is as comforting as yule log on a cold winter night. (It’s up there with my other favourite smells: grass, leaf mould and dogs’ paws—seriously!) According to the folks over at AbeBooks, old book smell is a”combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.”
I attended the International Antiquarian Book Fair in Toronto the other week. As I ran my fingers along the gilded edges and looking for secret messages in the marginalia, I thought how wonderful it would be to smell like a book.
Well, it looks like I’m not the first to wish that! Here you will find many interpretations of the classic “book smell” captured as colognes and perfumes. Because, you know, working beside a giant book-making machine and surrounding myself with stacks of books isn’t enough.
Black tea, vetiver, clove, musk, vanilla, heliotrope, and tobacco
According to Sweet Tea Apothecary, the creator of Dead Writers Perfume/Cologne Oil, this blend “evokes the feeling of sitting in an old library chair paging through yellowed copies of Hemingway, Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Poe, and more.” Lacking the traditional florals of women’s perfumes, this musky masculine scent can be worn by either sex.
Inspired by Karl Lagerfeld’s proclamation that “the smell of a freshly printed book is the best smell in the world,” Gerhard Steidl and Geza Schoen created Paper Passion, a perfume that mimics the scent of a freshly printed, modern book. Steidl describes the scent as “heavy, elegant, and calm.” Beautifully packaged inside a hardcover book, this would make an excellent albeit pricey holiday gift. Can’t afford a hundred bucks on a whim? It’s also available from Chapters/Indigo for $65 right now.
Moroccan leather, worn cloth, wood polish
This scent was inspired by the perfumer’s favourite book, a 1927 novel that “had a marvelous, warm, woody, slightly sweet smell” that he was determined to capture. Online reviews vary; some say the scent of lemon Pledge is overbearing, while others associate the smell with woody libraries. If opting for their air fresheners, which may have been inspired by this satirical website, the polished scent might actually be preferable. I strongly recommend the 2ml sample size ($13) before shelling out big bucks.
These all sound great, but none seems to capture the grassy vanilla dust smell that the experts claim is “book smell.” Demeter has been making unusual perfumes for years with incredibly accuracy, and I have high hopes for their Paperback perfume. Unlike the other colognes mentioned, this one includes floral elements (think less European academic and more Harlequin romance). They also make Grass, Dust, Vanilla, and Russian Leather scents, so you could experiment to create a signature scent.
Starting your Christmas shopping? Pair one of these scents with a copy of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind, Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, or The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro for a classy and quirky holiday gift. [Fun fact: Perfume by Süskind was Kurt Cobain’s favourite novel and inspired the song “Scentless Apprentice”]
Clockwise from top: 1. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Süskind 2. Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins 3. The Perfume Collector, Kathleen Tessaro 4. The Book of Lost Fragrances, M.J. Rose