“Nothing goes together quite like candles and reading.” I recently read this in the New York Times and thought: Um, no.
There is the first obvious reason, of course – the very flammable nature of the book’s main ingredient. But aside from that, I’ll wager that most people who find themselves reading by candlelight would rather turn on a light. I’ve endured enough power outages to know that candles are no match for a 60-watt bulb.
Think of those poor onscreen heroines starring in period piece dramas. Emma Thompson in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility comes to mind. Those gowned women in drawing rooms must lean perilously close to the flame to make out what they are reading. Which takes me back to my first point: books burn.
Yet the aforementioned quote about the ideal pairing of books and candles underscores the importance of candles not as a source of light, but as a means of enhancing the reading experience. It came from a curious source – a representative of New York’s legendary Strand bookstore. Famous for its 18 miles of new and used books, the Strand now sells scented candles to “enhance” the reading experience. Emphasis on scented.
We now live in an age when you can buy candles with scents meant to conjure old books and musty libraries. Literally. Some of these hot wax commodities are called Enchanted Library and Lost in the Stacks. People buy them (I’m told), light them when they sit down to read, and post a picture of this charmingly retro experience on their social media platforms.
These scents meant to conjure old books, leather armchairs and wooden shelves raise several questions, not the least of which is: If one misses the smell of libraries so much, why doesn't one just read there?
Oh, I know. Because we read everywhere. On trains and subways. In doctor’s offices and dorm rooms. Traffic jams and work cubicles. In short, we read in places where candles don't go, sometimes as a means of escaping those very places. Have I been missing out on quality reading experiences by skimping on scented candles? I think not.
Far be it from me to tell independent bookstores what to sell to boost profits (other than books, that is). I’m just so happy they survive and thrive. But selling candles intended to “enhance” the experience suggests a lack of respect for the very act of reading. It is the book you hold in your hands – not the scent of “Old Books” or “Rainy Day Reads” candles (yes, these exist) – that has transportive powers.
The idea that you need to light a candle to enhance your reading experience is comical. Unless, of course, the sole purpose is to lure new generations of readers into that bedrock of any community: the independent bookstore. Getting more people to read – that is a worthy gimmick. I may not engage in the practice, but I could certainly endorse it.
Besides, it seems that candles are not the only heat-related gimmick to enter the literary world. According to openculture.com, the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, Netherlands, is accepting pre-orders for a special edition of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, for only $451. The words on the all-black pages of this edition only reveal themselves when you apply an open flame to the pages.