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.