Dead anything doesn’t strike me as a very good name for a product. Maybe things are different in the perfume industry?  “The Dead Writers Perfume #174 blend evokes the feeling of sitting in an old library chair paging through yellowed copies of Hemingway, Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Poe, and more. Suitable for either sex, Dead Writers makes you want to put on a kettle of black tea and curl up with your favorite book. This perfume contains notes of black tea, vetiver, clove, musk, vanilla, heliotrope, and tobacco.” Putting on the kettle isn’t what it suggests to me: more like throwing up. Glad to see it’s suitable for either sex though: does this mean either sex of writer or either sex of perfume wearer? I’m not sure why you’d want to smell of old books, but I guess it takes all sorts. Whatever your sexual, olfactory or literary preference, you can obtain this elixir at the Immortal Perfumes website in exchange for $30.

More straightforwardly, for $18 Etsy, as The Passive Voice informs us, will provide you with a scented candle which allegedly smells of old books. The range of choice in the scent business is not perhaps something which a book publishing person has any right to shout about, but really: how many scents of candle can we consume? And what about just buying some books?

The Guardian‘s headline Can you judge a book by its odour? raises the hope of our being able to take a sniff and know whether we’ll enjoy the book or not. It is, more prosaically, an account of a more general chemical analysis of the smell of books, leading to the development of an “Historical Odour Wheel” showing that smell could help identify the age of a book (in the absence, one reflects, of other more obvious indicators). The research does, nevertheless, raise in my mind the hope that somehow we might be able to detect chemical traces of past readers, and more fancifully their reactions to what they were reading by chemical traces left by their hands, breath, tears etc. Dream on.

Atlas Obscura provides an account of the same research.

For chemists it must be frustrating to research smell. Sure, the chemicals can be identified, and their bonds be mapped. But involving humans gets you straight into the realm of social scientific vagueness. We don’t have a real vocabulary for smell or taste. We are forced to work by analogy and metaphor. and woodsy may “smell” different to you than it does to me. A beech wood in southern Scotland after rain (or more likely during, as it never stops) is likely to strike the nose differently than a beech wood in Westchester County. My wine-group colleagues all laugh when I invariably find the opportunity to describe a wine as smelling of old socks. They might think of stables or earthiness, though they none of them spent as much time as I did in the wet-wool and BO atmosphere of rugby changing rooms. But the thing that makes us reach for these similes is the lack of any precise vocabulary. I suppose if we could master the chemistry and say hexanol this might be an improvement — but we won’t I’m sure.

The undeniably sensitive Henry James writes “My impression [of The Initials, by Jemima Montgomery, Baroness von Tautphoeus, just purchased in 1850 by the seven-year-old boy at The Bookstore on Broadway] composed itself of many pieces; a great and various practice of burying my nose in the half-open book for the strong smell of paper and printer’s ink, known to us as the English smell, was needed to account for it. That was the exercise of the finest sense that hung about us, my brother and me — or of one at least but little less fine than the sense for the satisfaction of which we resorted to Thompson’s and to Taylor’s: it bore me company during all our returns from forages and left me persuaded that I had only to snuff up hard enough, fresh uncut volume in hand, to taste the very substance of London. All our books in that age were English, at least all our down-town ones—I personally recall scarce any that were not.” (From  A Small Boy and Others, 1913.) Unthinkable for him to have spoken of alkyl ketene dimer, hexanol, vanillin, or furfural.

I’ve gone on about this topic quite a lot. It’s a hobby horse of mine. See also Why old books smell, The smell of a book, Smell of a book 2, Smell of a book — graphic,

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