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