ESCAPE FROM THE LIBRARY

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As soon as I learned how to read as a child I was hooked. Some of my most vivid childhood memories are from the summer days spent lounging alone among the flowers – the pinks and and rosemary plants at the back of the garden devouring the library books I had borrowed; fairy tales, mysteries, but particularly The One Thousand And One Arabian Nights which filled my young and febrile brain with intrigue, murder, and love.

 

Yet although my penchant for reading and literature has never waned, and I still love to get really absorbed and properly engrossed in a good book even now, unlike quite a lot of book lovers – the true bibliophiles who treasure their libraries and volumes as though they were part of their being and count them as their most important possessions – I rarely, personally, fetishize the books themselves.  I have always much prefer the optimistic sheen of record shops to the musty and bespectacled, antiquarian booksellers.

 

Books loom large in my psyche as oppressors. They were quite often a cause of huge amounts of stress to me at university. More often than not it was a huge pain and inconvenience to have to read some giant French nineteenth century novel by the following Monday, some enormous tome like Stendhal’s Scarlet And Black, even cheating in English translation, which I almost always did because there just were not enough hours in the day to get through it in even in English;  to have to have read all of Dante’s immense and terrifying La Divina Commedia by a certain date ( I never managed to ), or to peruse countless, repetitive literarists’ critiques on some obscure poet that the library notwithstanding, time had probably forgotten.

 

For me, consequently, the feelings I have towards books and the book shelf are multi-layered and ambivalent. On the one hand I remember, and love, that sensation of finding, finally, that particular rare volume you were looking for and then clasping and nudging it firmly from the library shelf. The sense of private discovery as you open the pages and the scent of others’ lived and imaginary experience is released, the cellulose and lignin gradually breaking down over the decades and centuries releasing toluene, vanillin and benzaldehydes : the familiar and beloved papery smell that is full of places we’ll go, the people we’ll never meet, the yearning and excitement of being a fellow human being and feeling the excitement, and intimacy, of another’s words.

 

At the same time, although I love and loved the privacy and beauty of losing myself in another’s vision – that feeling when time stops its usual march and you recede into a place that’s almost beyond it – the library, with its silence, concentration and conspicuous seriousness, is a place I can find quite exasperating and oppressive. Banned from the Modern Languages library for refusing to pay the absurd fines they had levied against me, I would sometimes be forced to stray into the English department to research Virginia Woolf or else, was compelled to use the towering and ominous University Library, so deeply Orwellian and oppressively imposing in its brown, steadfastly 1940’s ugliness.

 

Ironically, this dark and dungeon-like place was where I happened to first properly fall in love and achieve liberation, the place where I caught sight of my partner Duncan from from afar, almost a quarter of a century ago now. When I first saw him, in the library cafe where slouchers and hedonists went to avoid having to read any books, some kind of light went off in my head … ( who is that?)….. and soon, I also by chance happened to find myself sitting next to him at one of the reading desks one rainy, boring weekday. I was trying to get his attention by fidgeting about and coughing rather self-consciously,  but in those pained, furrow-browned rows of books and lamplit desks there was so much self-importance, pen-chewing contemplation and desire to look ‘intellectual ‘ going on that it was often difficult to have any real human contact with anyone at all, let alone catch their eye, and my romantic overtures got lost in a fog of paper, the smell of history, and hardback.

 

One day, stuck at my desk there, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of books by literary critics analyzing the work of one particular writer, in their ‘own’ pedantically, masturbatory, astuter-than-thou academic posturing, I suddenly began to feel quite asphyxiated. The aridity of that life. The preciousness. The deadening rut of a life spent steadfastly on paper.  The lack of vitality, of juice, of lust, of air, and the whole place just suddenly overwhelmed my senses to the point that I grabbed my things, pelting out of there as fast as I could and, outrageously, but adrenalized and exhilarated as a nineteen year old youth could be, uprooted three magnificent and strong-smelling irises in the broadest of daylight that I had seen at the entrance of the building and started running for my life.

 

Thinking about it now, me elated and panting but out of breath and terrified in my room –  the flowers already slung in a vase with some water; the strange and hypnotic black and purple scent filling my room to my ecstacy, in some ways this episode is really quite emblematic and symbolic of my life. I love books, yes, but I infinitely prefer just living (and as it turned out, writing). Although I had the option of studying further – more years of being deadened in wooden, deathly environments, in truth I knew I couldn’t stand another moment of being shut up in another soul-deafening library. My impassioned playboy year spent in Rome during my third year at university had opened my eyes: I had LIVED, had had a solidly real and wonderful year in that magical place; had made so many friends and felt more truly alive than ever before, and the concept, now of my bowing my head down in bookish concentration for two or three more years, inhaling the smell of those dusty, fingerworn pages had no appeal to me whatsoever. In truth I was always, and am still, way way more excited by the scent of records; the sheen of fresh-pressed acetate and vinyl as you pull that brand new beauty from its sleeve and place it on the turntable to  lose yourself in dance and music ( not that I would ever need, I don’t think, that particular scent recreated for my body). In comparison, a library, despite its perhaps holding the key to many of the secrets to our existence that we need to unlock; the gifts of our most enlightened ancestors and predecessors: a calm and soothing place that can afford a whole lifetime of quiet pleasures, to me, in truth, well a library is often nothing more than a claustrophobic, sonorous catacomb of silence and dead trees.

 

 

*

 

In this age of smartphone technology and glassed, odourless surfaces, in which we interact by screen and by mouseclick and not flesh to flesh; not in close proximity to each other, not smelling each other, not inhaling the words from an old book that rise up and connect you with the people who have come before you with the tactile scent of its paper, it is perhaps understandable that there should, now, be an olfactory trend of modern perfumes and candles that attempt to replicate that ambience.

 

 

And while I can relate to this fad on one level, the soothing scent of physical reality before everything became internet, I personally find all this rather ersatz and artificial, a tad Odorama, like those cinematic experiments in the fifties and sixties when the smell of bubblegum, or smoke, would be piped out at a particular moment in the program and the audience would gasp at the verisimilitude. Although I have on occasion enjoyed the odd scented candle or two – Diptyque’s Feu De Bois does a nice job of recreating that ‘rug by a winter’s fire’ vibe, for example, I personally don’t really need a ready made storyline; an ah, now I’m in a library.

 

Still, quite understandably, other people do seem to like a more literal smell to evoke feelings of concentration and single focusedness and an escape from the ambivalent, two dimensional world. And thus they bring the library to them: they wear an olfactory approximation of the library on their skin. They have fallen in love all over again with the smell of old books. A desire to ENTER the book itself. To reside within it. To light a different candle, in each room of your home, augment and distill this chilled and present librarian effect,  the binding and the covers and the translucence coming to life, in the air surrounding you, from S.T Apothecary’s Dead Writers; Oxford Library, Sherlock’s Study; Book Cellar to Trashy Romance Novel by Frostbeard, while dousing yourself liberally in Paperback by Demeter;  Paper Passion by Geza Schoen; or else, for the most intensively bookholic effect, In The Library by CB I Hate Perfume. For the truly maniacal committed reader, you can now, in perfume terms, practically bookworm yourself to death.

 

A more recent release – Bibliotheque, by Byredo, fortunately (for me at least) bravely avoids the standard, bibliophilic tropes that we are used to smelling in niche perfume and gives us instead what to me feels more like a trendy Stockholm book cafe hangout than a library; a place you can have coffee and something sweet and delicious while lounging on some wine red leather sofas and watch the world go by through the big, daylight- loving, ceiling-to-floor windows ( with the heating set very high on the coldest of days.)

 

A convincingly soft suede/ woody/ leather accord that definitely evokes a comfortable room and cosy space, Bibliotheque is infused with dense, plummy goodness, and an inspired thread of violet, taking the old Lutensian Bois et.. idea but intensifying it with the modern, Byredo style. Recognizably a perfume from this house ( the density and texture is quite similar to Black Saffron and Baudelaire and others in the range), this is snugger, more wearable, and conducive.

 

This retreat is a place you can just take your book and immerse yourself in it while alternating between daydreaming, watching the sky, and people watching. You can sink into not only the sofa, but yourself. While sipping on that piping cappuccino; lost in thought, and observation, and cloud watching, the warm woody scent rising up and solidifying any potential existentialist emptiness. And in a cafe, rather than a huge,  convoluted, labyrinthine library,  at least – whenever you want to – you can always more readily find the exit.

21 Comments

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21 responses to “ESCAPE FROM THE LIBRARY

  1. Tuskanny

    Dear Neil, thanks for this extremely good piece of writing, I really enjoyed reading it and I can imagine you’re getting better and better.
    This :” a library is often nothing more than a claustrophobic, sonorous catacomb of silence and dead trees.” sounds so good ! 😉 Génial !
    This piece is about you, un personnage que je trouve passionnant à bien des égards and so alive…
    Sorry, I know you can read french, et des fois c’est plus facile pour moi. All the best, keep getting better this exact way ! x

    • Thank you so much for saying this. Yes, I do feel passionately alive despite my current difficulties, and today I just wanted to spend the morning writing. I had a sample bottle of Bibliotheque with me and was surprised that I didn’t hate it as I usually do Byredo. Just the name got me thinking all about libraries and my mixed feelings towards them. Are you a person who likes to spend a lot of time in les bibliotheques?

  2. Tuskanny

    I used to when I was a student, I loved them their silent atmosphere almost religious maybe this feeling of yours had to do with the obligation, the necessity of STUDYING, how heavy, I dont know… I still love them a lot, but bookstores, oh yes, any kind of bookstore will find me the most soothed appeased concentrated focused tranquille woman on earth and probably for a few hours the happiest one ! Thanks for asking dear, there was no way I wouldn’t answer any question you ask and then it puts me to writing in english… la belle affaire !

    • I am genuinely interested. I also understand that almost religious sanctuary aspect of the library, the solitude mixed with a shared solidarity of reading and concentration.

      Ultimately, though, I’m just not serious enough. I never have been and I never will be!

  3. The hospital stay is doing wonders for your new knees AND your writing. This is so good. It makes me think of a book that could be put together and published, a collection of essays, loosely based on fragrance, for fragrance lovers such as your fans here and for lovers of excellent writing. You’ve got enough for a good-sized volume already, I’m betting.

    Last night, coincidentally, I was burning the last of my Paddywax soy candle from their Library Collection. It was the Mark Twain, a smoky, woody, moody affair with tobacco flower and vanilla. Has a quote of his on the label: “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.” We have no great libraries here, but I did enjoy the Long Room at Trinity College’s Old Library in Dublin, and would love to see the ones you haunted at school. Canada is such a young country, the west of it younger still, and I am captivated by that atmosphere of age and time that you have and we don’t. I wonder what Japanese libraries are like?

  4. Neil, this was a great piece of writing! One of these days, perhaps you will write a book on perfumes (which I’m sure would be better than most of the other perfume related books out there). I still read the newspaper, lots of magazines and stuff on the Internet, but I do most of my book reading in bed before I go to sleep, or when and if I have an opportunity to go to the beach, I make sure I bring a few books with me. I’m glad that you are coming along in your recuperation.

    • Thanks. That’s how I read as well. I think libraries can be inspiring in a way, but also they are just too stuffy for me most of the time. Plus, I’m not really a ‘soaked-in-history’ kind of person. I mean I am in the sense that I love to live in beautiful places ( Cambridge, Rome, Kamakura), but I am not always hankering after smoky parchment memories of the past and being ‘scholarly in the halls of time’ and all that

  5. emmawoolf

    I just love this. And hear what you are saying, completely ….the horror of being forced to “get through” book after book, week after week, hasn’t really left me, to tell the truth – and actually I’m going through a curious non-book phase at the moment, each novel takes an eternity to get through, I fall asleep after a few pages, unless I dedicate a whole day to reading, which seems terribly self-indulgent. Anyway. Perfume aside, (I share your ambivalence towards Byredo) there are some gorgeous nostalgic moments in here too, and I am lucky enough to remember a fair few of them. Keep getting better xx

    • It was fun, actually, allowing my mind to wander back to those times; I mean the University Library or UL as everyone called it really did feel like a prison to me: like something out of 1984. Is it my distorted memory or was there something cage-like about it? I just could never stand all that self-important gravitas- it just made me want to scream.

      As for reading, I think for most people I go through phases ( but feel little guilt about it any more ). Before I got this iPhone- 18 months of being contact free, I was pretty much reading book after book and enjoyed it but having Facebook and the internet just put paid to all of that in one fell swoop! I am sure I will get back into it though when the time is right.

  6. MrsDalloway

    Thank you for the UL flashbacks! I think I came up to Cambridge a year after you left, and I did stay on for a PhD. The rare books room was even more so. Sometimes I really liked it…

    You make Bibliotheque sound gorgeous. I’ve never smelled a single Byredo but I might this one.

    • The rare books room. You had to have that special permission. I can still see the entrance to it in my mind’s eye ( not that I ever went there ), the exact colour of the lighting.

      Sometimes I also had quite beautiful days of pure concentration and mental stimulation but more often than not that building just induced in me a feeling of dread.

  7. I need the “trashy romantic novel candle ” at the moment!! Lol
    Sorry Stephanie Laurens!!
    This is so good, you are feeling better. I love reading lots of different ways now, as you say Facebook articles and blogs, but still love a book in my hands…wanted to read more of your first meeting with the boy before you ran away…

    • They were actually different time frames: the iris incident happened two years or so before I met him.

      We actually had mutual friends in common; they eventually brought us together in my last week of university..

  8. You must use a magical wand instead of a pen for writing most of your posts. I felt like I was sitting and having a cup of coffee and a book at one of those cafe without any worry.

  9. I was surprised to see this review!

    I always have the feeling Byredo is not for me, I can’t say why. Sometimes I have an aversion to certain brands without ever giving them a good try.

    The iris theft was my favorite part of the post. It was perfect. I remember fleeing school at times, having started the day with every intention of being where I was supposed to be, but when the moment came, I couldn’t make it happen. Sometimes I would go swimming instead, but mostly for me, the memory is of the wind on my face as I drove away from campus at top speed, heading *anywhere* else.

    Our library was unspeakably awful, but I would sometimes drift to the upper floors for a nap.

    • I love stories like this.
      The ultimate delicious guilt for me on occasion was going to the cinema instead of lectures.

      • And about the perfume.. I am also emphatically not a Byredo person: they are way too strong and chemical for me, even if they do come up with some occasionally interesting accords. Relatively speaking, then, I quite like this perfume. As I said, it still has that Byredo DNA, but the suede/plum/violet accord does effectively convey the idea of a place that is warm an cosy. Probably I will use my sample bottle as a room spray.

  10. Tara C

    I found this to be very fruity and not at all reminiscent of the libraries I’ve frequented. Not unpleasant, but not what I envisioned. Glad you are feeling better!

    • I know exactly what you mean: it is very much a woody plum violet but I really get the warm leather sofa thing underneath as well. To be honest if it had actually smelled like a library I would have been bored to death.

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