We live in an era where the labyrinth of online information threatens our concentration levels at every turn. So it is refreshing to find something abidingly educative arise from one person simply pottering around the Internet. Barbara Herman’s richly informative Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume is largely the product of her surfing the net on a wave of personal passion: perfume.
A former pop-culture website editor, Herman began her so called “chemical romance” blogging about vintage scent on her site Yesterday’s Perfume. Adrift in the open plan office in some unnamed city, Herman describes how interest blossomed into fascination with each new vial of vintage scent she purchased. Online forums, market places and blogs; while the rest of us were staring at Facebook Herman was receiving a veritable education from what she terms the “burgeoning scent subculture.”
The book is less an account of one woman falling in love with vintage scent – something interesting enough but hardly the stuff to fill a book -, and more a fresh, fascinating angle on history and the smell it leaves behind. Or rather, the smell that history forgot; as Herman outlines in her opening paragraph, there is poignancy in loving something that is truly transitory:
“Imagine if a first edition of your favorite book slowly disintegrated each time you read it. You might be able to buy another copy at a yard sale or online, but sooner or later there wouldn’t be a single copy left. And let’s say, because of a quirk in the paper and ink, there was no way to copy its words. What imaginary worlds that reflect back and teach us about our own would be lost forever? Sadly, this is the fate of many major and minor classic perfumes of the twentieth century.”
And so we follow Herman into what turns out to be part memoir, part science lesson, part social comment and part perfume directory and 101. We are told why scent is the most unruly, powerful of senses; stimulating as it does the “oldest, most primitive part of the brain” which houses the “limbic system, the seat of our emotions and memories”. With scent established as the “anarchist” of senses, Herman proceeds to open up the subject of scent as a social statement of timeliness and subversion. We all know most things move in fashions, but perfume – and the processes that create it, the people that envision it, the social standards that curtail it – goes a step beyond what is popular on the high street.
Herman is also generous with her “liquid language” of perfume vocabulary. Cartoonishly simple pop culture words like “top note” expand with context and extra content. By the centre of the book you are equipped to take a real interest in the extensive perfume directory, around 300 perfumes listed with accompanying nuggets of history and description. The quantity of ingredients and descriptive gymnastics that go into perfume prose are staggering, a sentiment only reinforced in the latter part of the book. Here, perfumers like Antoine Lie talk about their inspirations for scent, and the surprising ingredients they aim to emulate (adrenaline/saliva inspired perfume anyone?).
If nothing else these pages will take you back to whatever scent you or your girlfriend or grandmother wears, or may have worn before the perfume was discontinued and lost to scentless pages of history. Herman captures the magic of the well-imagined non-fiction book. She has taken a subject that might, to the causal eye, seem a little thin in terms of content, and popped it open like a window onto remarkable insight.