The best books on perfume and scent

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a historian of science who just completed a book on the role of perfume in the quest for the secret of life and vitality. While writing it, I became fascinated with the challenge of translating scent into language. While our nose can recognize a virtually infinite number of odors, there are only a few basic categories of description (“floral,” “woody,” “citrus,” etc.). To fully describe them often requires a poet’s touch – invoking a tapestry of memories, associations, and feelings to create the experience in the reader’s mind. These are some of the best books I’ve encountered for talking about the complex world of scent, and the importance of perfume in human history.

I wrote...

Elixir: A Parisian Perfume House and the Quest for the Secret of Life

By Theresa Levitt,

Book cover of Elixir: A Parisian Perfume House and the Quest for the Secret of Life

What is my book about?

In the 1830s, Édouard Laugier and Auguste Laurent were working in Laugier Père et Fils, the oldest perfume house in Paris. They prepared the perfumery’s revitalizing elixirs and rejuvenating eaux, drawing on alchemical traditions that equated a plant’s vitality with its aroma. They hunted the vital force that promised to reveal the secret to life itself. Their ideas, roundly condemned by established chemists, led to the discovery of structural differences between naturally occurring molecules and their synthetic counterparts, even when the molecules were chemically identical.

Scientists still can’t explain this anomaly, but it may point to critical insights concerning the origins of life on Earth. Rich in sparks and smells, brimming with eccentric characters, experimental daring, and the romance of the Bohemian salon, Elixir is a fascinating cultural and scientific history.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Perfume

Theresa Levitt Why did I love this book?

A gruesome story of murder and desire that also happens to have the most vivid olfactory descriptions of any genre.

Suskind’s preternatural ability to summon odor from the page makes you feel as if you are there beside him, walking through the flowered hillsides of Provence, or in the back room of a perfume shop on the Pont au Change. His twisted use of classic perfume techniques is as accurate as it is chilling.

By Patrick Suskind,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Perfume as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An erotic masterpiece of twentieth century fiction - a tale of sensual obsession and bloodlust in eighteenth century Paris

'An astonishing tour de force both in concept and execution' Guardian

In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages. His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and if his name has been forgotten today.

It is certainly not because Grenouille fell short of those more famous blackguards when it came to arrogance, misanthropy, immorality, or, more succinctly, wickedness, but because his gifts…

Book cover of The Foul & the Fragrant: Odor & the French Social Imagination

Theresa Levitt Why did I love this book?

A classic of cultural history that shows how thoroughly smell shapes our lived experience.

Corbin details how different (and generally worse) France smelled in the past, and how this world of miasmas and insalubrious airs dictated hygiene practices and social interactions. More recent works, like Jonathan Reinarz’ Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell have further built on the treatment of odor as a powerful cultural force.

By Alain Corbin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Foul & the Fragrant as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a book whose insight and originality have already had a dazzling impact in France, Alain Corbin has put the sense of smell on the historical map. He conjures up the dominion that the combined forces of smells--from the seductress's civet to the ubiquitous excremental odors of city cesspools--exercised over the lives (and deaths) of the French in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Book cover of The Emperor Of Scent: A Story of Perfume, Obsession and the Last Mystery of the Senses

Theresa Levitt Why did I love this book?

At the center of this rollicking account is the larger-than-life figure of Luca Turin, a perfume aficionado and renegade biophysicist with an uncannily sensitive nose.

Burr followed him as he traded blows with the scientific establishment over his unorthodox theory of how smell works. What emerges is a profound appreciation of just how little understood this sense still is, and how varied and potent the smells of the world are to someone as attentive to them as Turin.

By Chandler Burr,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Emperor Of Scent as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the tradition of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief and James Gleick's Genius, The Emperor of Scent tells the story of Luca Turin, an utterly unusual, stubborn scientist, his otherworldly gift for perfume, his brilliant, quixotic theory of how we smell, and his struggle to set before the world the secret of the most enigmatic of our senses.

Book cover of Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent

Theresa Levitt Why did I love this book?

Ellena is a legendary perfumer, who has devoted his life to the creation of evocative scents.

In this book, he invites the reader into his process. We learn a lot about the inner workings of the perfume industry. But even more interesting are the insights into Ellena’s own mind as he navigates memory, imagination, and pleasure in the pursuit of new scents both soothing and surprising.

By Jean-Claude Ellena,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Perfume as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

To women the whole world over, perfume means glamour, and in the world of perfume, Jean-Claude Ellena is a superstar. In this one-of-a-kind book, the master himself takes you through the doors of his laboratory and explains the process of creating precious fragrances, revealing the key methods and recipes involved in this mysterious alchemy.
Perfume is a cutthroat, secretive multibillion-dollar industry, and Ellena provides an insider's tour, guiding us from initial inspiration through the mixing of essences and synthetic elements, to the deluxe packaging and marketing in elegant boutiques worldwide, and even the increasingly complicated safety standards that are set…

Book cover of Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfume

Theresa Levitt Why did I love this book?

Aftel is the Alice Waters of natural perfume and here she shares the secrets of her craft while revealing their rich history.

She brings out the magic and alchemy in humankind’s long-standing efforts to capture the aromatic essences of plants, evoking a hidden world of natural fragrances and their ability to seduce, heal, intoxicate, and transport one to another state.

By Mandy Aftel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Essence and Alchemy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As long as there has been passion, there has been perfume. Wealthy Romans used to scent their doves while in Shakespeare's time, a woman in love would place a peeled apple into her armpit to saturate it with her scent and then present it to her lover. "Essence and Alchemy" resurrects the social and metaphysical legacy that is entwined with the evolution of perfumery, from the dramas of the spice trade to the quests of the alchemists. Aftel tracks scent through the boudoir and the bath and into the sanctums of worship, and along the way teaches us the art…

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The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

By Sammy Stein,

Book cover of The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

Sammy Stein Author Of Fabulous Female Musicians

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I've been passionate about music for almost my entire life. Jazz music in particular speaks to me but not just jazz. I love music, full stop. I really discovered jazz when I attended a jazz club workshop in London and there, I had to join in or leave. I chose to join in and since then I have never looked back. I was introduced to more jazz musicians and now write about music for three major columns as well as Readers’ Digest. My Women In Jazz book won several awards. I have been International Editor for the Jazz Journalist Association and had my work commissioned by the Library of Congress. 

Sammy's book list on female musicians

What is my book about?

With input from over 100 musicians, the book discusses what exactly jazz is, and how you know you are listening to it. Do we truly know when and how jazz first originated? Who was the first jazz musician? How does jazz link to other genres? What about women in jazz? And writers and journalists? Do reviews make any difference? 

This book is a deep dive into jazz's history, impact, and future. It discusses jazz's social, cultural, and political influence and reveals areas where jazz has had an impact we may not even realize.Its influences on hip hop, the connection to…

The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

By Sammy Stein,

What is this book about?

This book is very different from other, more general jazz books. It is packed with information, advice, well researched and includes experiences from jazz musicians who gleefully add their rich voices to Sammy's in-depth research. All genres, from hard bop to be-bop, vocal jazz, must instrumental, free jazz, and everything between is covered in one way or another and given Sammy's forensic eye. There is social commentary and discussions of careers in jazz music. The musical background of those in the book is rich and diverse.
Critics comment:
"This new book by Sammy Stein is a highly individual take on…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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