Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Greatest Book Ever Written

Perfumes: the A-Z guide

You think I'm kidding. I'm not kidding.

I first heard about this book from Grub Street writing instructor Chip Cheek, who highly recommended it for all writers. He said that although we try to involve the senses on the page, we so often overlook the sense of smell; this book describes nearly 2,000 perfumes in spectacularly evocative ways. Read it, and you will never think of scent the same way again.

He's right. And on top of that, it is a joy to read.

One perfume is described as the olfactory equivalent of a man you can't talk to for more than 30 seconds without checking your watch. Another is "like spraying Glade on strawberry-flavored cotton candy." Smelling an old favorite is "like meeting an old high school teacher who had a decisive influence on my life." And, picking a 5-star (highest) rated scent at random: has the haunting, outdoors witchiness of tall pines leaning into the night -- a bitter oakmoss inkiness, a dry cedar crackle, and a low, delicious, pleasing sweet amber, like the call of a faraway candy house. Lulling and unsettling in equal measure...

The two-word scent summaries accorded to each scent are also pithily resonant: pale floral, coffee lavender, woody vanilla... but also burial wreath, watery lemons, fresh nothing, crap jasmine, and mango raincoat. Ever been at a loss as to how to effectively insult someone? Read the 1-star reviews in this book and hesitate no more.

I bought the paperback version but am wondering if the e-book is fully searchable, in which case I'll probably buy a second copy in electronic format. The excerpt page on the book's website has a link to the less-recent hardcover edition on Google books, so that may do the trick for now when I want to search for a particular scent-keyword (almond, rose, vile).

I spent all of last night quoting sections of this to my husband. He told me to buy everything the authors had ever written, but of course they don't write fiction, they are just (just!) experts and passionate devotees of perfume. He was disappointed, and a little stunned. Because who wouldn't want to read a short story by the author who wrote: I believe that men who smell like this must grow a 5-o'clock shadow every day by eleven.

Wait, I didn't get that quote exactly right, they said it better...

And it's not in the Google books version. Damn. I'm going to have to buy that e-book.


  1. No joke Carrie, that is fantastic! I checked out the excerpts and indeed the authors are excellent writers. What imagination!

    I'm buying this book now. Thanks for this. I am as enamored of it as you. I LOVE a well-written metaphor and I have often wondered what makes a book great--and it often comes down to the way it describes things.

  2. What fun! My daughter is into perfumes--I'll have to tell her about this book. Thanks for sharing.

  3. That is awesome. I want. I bet the hardcover book smells like win.

  4. Great review! I am not into perfumes, but I'm into (good) smells, and I'm intrigued by all the creative descriptions.

    In my fiction I use smells a lot--maybe too much. I was editing something I wrote and noticed I was always making my character "breathe in the scent of X." It got old after the second time; I definitely need some variety in the way I bring scents into the story!

  5. Sounds amazing. I'm going to get it. Another great post.

  6. I loved this. We overlook the smells. "They are not fictional writers, but experts in their field." Great line.


  7. Great writing crops up in the most unique places.

  8. What's that old line about porn, I know it when I see it? I can't say the same is true about "crap jasmine," but damn, them's some good descriptions.

  9. How interesting. I think I'm going to have to look into the book just to read all the descriptions!