In my review of Constance Classen's book Aroma (February 2006) I wrote about the growing academic interest for the culture of smell. Not long after that, a wonderful anthology entitled The Smell Culture Reader was published, with excerpts and essays from various renowned (and some lesser known) authors. This massive book (442 pages, 36 articles) brings together some of the finest contemporary writings on smell and its philosophical and cultural implications. Divided into seven sections, it covers a number of frequently recurring topics in this genre, such as scent and sexuality, smell psychology, and fragrance aesthetics. But it tackles less common themes as well, like the fear of foreign smells in the urban domain, or how odors define the ambiance of a space.
Among the contributors you'll find several authors we've discussed previously on these pages. There's an interesting article by Mandy Aftel on technical aspects of perfumery (originally published in Tin House magazine), a piece by Alain Corbin on changing tastes among the 18th century French elite (from The Foul and the Fragrant), and no less than 39 perfume reviews by Luca Turin (which I haven't found anywhere else). Marcel Proust and Oliver Sacks are there too, but their 'contributions' are disappointingly short: two pages by Sacks about some medical student who dreams he's a dog (and wakes up with a sharp sense of smell), and an even shorter story by Proust entitled 'Another Memory' (depressed man smells a wonderful perfume, and forgets about the blandness of life).
I haven't read all the articles, and I doubt that many people will. Some topics are a bit peculiar (the odor of male solitude and the paradox of mid-nineteenth century anti-masturbation treatises), so you'll probably end up making a selection, rather than reading the book from cover to cover. I can warmly recommend the piece on "queer smells" by Mark Graham (about the relation between gendered perfumes and sexual orientation), and the excerpt on perfume and sensuality from Richard Stamelman's book Perfume (which I'll be reviewing soon).
The editor of this anthology, Jim Drobnick, wrote a thoughtful introduction to each section of the book. He explains the broader context of each article, and shows the relations between the different topics. It's the glue that keeps this work together — and in my opinion, Drobnick did an excellent job here. His introductions also contain some great tips for further reading, so they should definitely not be skipped.
There were many reasons for Jim Drobnick to compile this reader, but I guess his Lewis Thomas quote sums them up best: "[smell] may not seem a profound enough problem to dominate all of the life sciences, but it contains, piece by piece, all the mysteries". If you're intrigued by issues involving the culture of smell — whether it's about gender, ethnicity, class, or more elusive concepts like the "olfactory imaginary" — this book definitely belongs on your bookshelf. Beware that it's not an easy read, and that it makes frequent references to French post-modernist philosophers (to which some people are highly allergic).
The Smell Culture Reader belongs to a series of anthologies called Sensory Formations, which is supervised by David Howes (co-author of the aforementioned Aroma). The softcover edition costs around $35 US and is widely available in the US, Canada, and Europe.
Jim Drobnick is an associate professor of Contemporary Art and Theory at the Ontario College of Art and Design (Canada).
The Smell Culture Reader
Jim Drobnick (ed.)
Oxford/New York: Berg Publishers (2006)
Softcover, 442 pages
I want it now.
I had really mixed reactions to this anthology. On the one hand, I was grateful for Drobnick's work, and delighted in some of the essays. It was also nice to see the older literary selections, and the work from people in the perfume field given equal time and made visible next to the more po-mo/abstract academic stuff in a volume that seems pretty clearly pitched at academics (not a bad thing–its a way for Drobnick to make an impact on how smell/perfume is treated, culturally).
However, I was downright disappointed by the very essay you recommend, since it offered a very interesting thesis about smell and gender and then proceeded to concentrate almost solely on ads — that is, on the visual — a problem that dogged some of the other authors as well. I thought that Eleanor Margolies' (hope that name is correct, don't have my copy with me) essay on the smells of New York–which I adored–was the only one to successfully combine the best of academic theory with the sensuality and playfulness evident in the literary sections. But then, I have a weakness for that particular combination…
Thanks very much for reviewing the book — it deserves attention and discussion.
I understand what you mean. Turning towards the visual (and narrative) representation of gender in perfume ads is indeed a departure from the central theme of this anthology. That said, I don't think that it makes the essay less interesting, especially to people interested in perfume culture. I don't think the author would have been able to make his point as clearly if he would have attempted a semiological analysis of smell. He puts things in perspective in a way that I found very refreshing. Btw, I really enjoyed the article by Eleanor Margolies too (Vagueness Gridlocked: A Map of the Smells of New York). It starts off with descriptions which are indeed poetic rather than academic, and then tackles the notion of “smell mapping” in a seriously structured manner. I also liked the fact that the author refers to Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas – I'm a little bit familiar with his work, but never considered the possibility of a marriage between his work and the notion of “smell landscapes”. Surprising in a very pleasant way.
I actually assigned a number of articles from this reader in a class I taught this past semester. The subject for the week was scent as a form of knowledge, and we had a “show-and-smell” in class, as well as reading Calvino's “The Name, The Nose” and other bits and pieces. The students really responded to the Drobnick readings. It's a lot of fun to dip in and out of, but I completely agree that reading it cover-to-cover would be somewhat tiresome!
I'm so glad you mention Calvino's book, Carla! I want to review Under the Jaguar Sun (The Name, The Nose) on these pages soon, didn't mention it here, but as you probably know there are footnotes/references to it in The Smell Culture Reader too. I actually gave a French copy of that book to a befriended perfumer last week.
Hi Marcello! As I was adding yet ANOTHER of your reviewed books to my “Wish List”…I came across this title: “Perfume: Joy, Scandal, Sin – A Cultural History of Fragrance from 1750 to the Present,” by Richard Stamelman. It's a Rizzoli book and I was wondering if you've read it? Kevin
Hi Kevin! Yes I have, and it will be my next review
Thanks for the review! Sounds fascinating and just ordered it, along w/ Calvino's Under the Jaguar Sun. That was a great Lewis Thomas quote. Love him. Was it from the smell essay in “Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony”?
Will wait for your review of Stamelman's book before ordering that one as well…although since it popped up as one of the recommended books on the order confirmation page after I ordered Drobnik's, I almost took it as a sign that I should go ahead and get it. Yes, I'm pathetically susceptible to Amazon's marketing.
Elle, yes the Thomas quote was indeed from “Late Night Thoughts…” ! I think you will love Under the Jaguar Sun, btw. It's actually a small booklet, but such a treat! (and there's some haunting, deep thoughts behind it)
Marcello, I have nothing to add, just wanted to thank you for the review and the run-down on the contents. It's much appreciated!
you're welcome, Katie!