8 Literary Perfumes for Book-Lovers Who Want to Smell Good
Do you have a nose? Do you like to read? Then you need to know about these scents
Perfume and literature have long been entwined, each one referencing or seeking to summon the other. Many famous books center on or are based around perfume, from Patrick Suskind’s 1985 novel Perfume to the numerous books in which scents become plot points or character development. And perfume, for its part, is frequently obsessed with literature. Scent is a storytelling genre, one seeking to transport the wearer to a different time or place, a memory or an imagined history. Perfume makers are often directly inspired by literature, too; many perfumes are based on specific authors or characters, more general ideas of literary eras and history, or on the imagined scent of books and libraries themselves.
Here are eight suggestions of perfumes for the book lover. Whether you’re already fragrance-obsessed, or have never worn perfume before reading this, these scents will pair perfectly with a love of reading, and cater to a range of literary interests.
Portland-based perfume company Imaginary Authors makes arguably the ultimate perfumes for book-readers. Each of their scents is based the story of a made-up author — name, date, works and all — and matches the fragrance to the imaginary author’s imaginary world. “The Soft Lawn” invents Fitzgeraldesque Claude LeCocq writing about the silver spoon and tennis whites set, while “Bull’s Blood” imagines a hyper-masculine Hemingway stand-in famous for a book about bullfighting and his father. But my favorite of their collection is Cape Heartache, a perfume based on an invented 19th century American novelist named Phillip Sava who wrote about his teenage expeditions to the Pacific Northwest. It evokes the old growth forests and foggy mornings in that part of the country perfectly, shot through with unexpected sweetness, like the smell of nostalgia.
Book lovers often begin their interest in perfume by seeking out a scent that smells like old books. For many of us, our love of reading started by cracking open old paperbacks, whether from the library, or school, or borrowed from a parent’s bookshelves. In the Library evokes that dusty scent, the smell of yellowing pages and ink, but also the warm-body, indoor smell of a library, with notes of leather, paper, and wood polish. The scent is part of Christopher Brosius’ I Hate Perfume line, in which each scent is meant to evoke a particular memory, and he based this one on the smell of a 1927 signed first edition of his favorite novel.
Paris is a famously literary city, and Memo, a perfume line based on evoking ideas of place, focuses its depiction of Paris specifically on the city’s literary history. The Quartier Latin, from which the perfume takes its name, is the student district, known for all-night cafes where artists and intellectuals fought and flirted and debated philosophy. This perfume is meant to smell like paper and ink, like scribbling furiously in a leatherbound notebook. Notes of tonka bean, sandalwood, amber, and cedar come to together to evoke this vision of a romantic intellectual city.
Memoir is a controversial genre, and one that has perhaps gotten a bad reputation in recent years, with the rise and fall of the confessional online essay. But this perfume — a rich, weird, androgynous scent with notes of absinthe, white flowers, cardamom, pink pepper, labdanum and leather — is memoir in a more old-fashioned sense, the recollections of someone fascinating who lived a long and weird life, with instructive and sometimes frightening stories to tell. The contrasts in the scent imitate the contrasts in a life story, with its twists, turns, hard lessons, sharp ups and downs, and moments of unexpected sweetness.
Histoires des Parfums’ fragrances are based on single years in history, often with a literary flavor. Other fragrances in include 1828 Jules Verne (a citrus marine fragrance) and 1740 Marquis de Sade, but 1804 is named for the year George Sand was born. A gorgeous white floral bouquet, the scent is clean, welcoming, and gracious, evoking the novelist’s famous generosity and love of nature.
Oscar Wilde wrote “De Profundis” (which translates “from the depths”) from prison, a letter to the young loutish lover who had put him there. It is a heartbreaking confession — and a confession in a literal, religious sense, as it draws closely on biblical ideas of sin and creation and depicts Wilde’s identification with Christ — mourning both his and his beloved’s vanity and weaknesses. It stands in contrast to Wilde’s popular plays and quips, as though his buoyant wit had turned inside out to reveal the wounded heart beneath it. From storied French perfume house Serge Lutens, created by famous perfumer Christopher Sheldrake, this perfume is inspired equally by Wilde’s famous letter and Psalm 130 from which it takes its name (“from the depths I have cried out to you, Oh Lord”), and is meant to be the smell of confession and resurrection, moving from the scent of ash and musk to the smell of Wilde’s signature chrysanthemum, and into greens, earth, and new growth.
Charles Baudelaire was perhaps the quintessential French dandy-poet, today famous as much for his persona as for his poetry, and Byredo’s perfume is a tribute to that persona, at once lushly floral and dark with sticky incense, like the interior of an intellectual salon being hosted in a wealthy home, full of smoke and booze and flowers.
A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream is the Shakespeare plays most likely to be performed at an outdoor festival where the audience brings picnic blankets and sits on the lawn and gently swats at mosquitoes all night, and the particular joy of this specific experience is maybe the best thing about this play. Roja’s perfume in tribute to Shakespeare’s famous comedy evokes exactly that experience, combining moss, floral notes, vanilla, vetiver, and deeper cedarwood, benzoin, and musk, like the experience of dusk settling blue over a lawn full of community theater actors playing fairies and lovers.