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This review is from: What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life (Hardcover)Avery Gilbert is a very entertaining writer with a beautiful turn of phrase. He also seems to loathe Europeans of all varieties, which is interesting to read about, especially when you are one. He also loathes Chandler Burr, the New York Times perfume reviewer, which seems a little harsh.
He's the master of the enraged rant, and will whip out his sharpened pen and jab it in the direction of sloppy science and unsustainable assumption wherever he finds it. He rants at Proust for being quoted regularly when the subject of scent, taste and memory arise and cites American writers who are far more skilled at evocative description. It was hardly Proust's fault; he never claimed to be an expert on olfaction. But after all, he was French so he seems to deserve everythig he gets.
Gilbert also has a rant at a European sales assistant who ignorantly suggesedt using the thick end of a perfume blotter to spray the sample instead of the thin end. I was taught that you dip the thin end and spray onto the thick end; that's why they are made with a thick end and a thin end. Otherwise they might as well be thin all the way along. Wrong, apparently. I'm merely demonstrating my European stupidity and lack of class.
Then there's his rant about fictional extra-terrestials being depicted with no nostrils, as if a scent of smell is something that beings of a higher intelligence don't need. Well, my toy extra-terrestrial has nostrils, and so does ET, great big huge ones with which he follows a trail of M&M's. It's true that scent has been negelected until recently in serious science, but the ET argument doesn't hold up.
The chapter where he traces the 10,000 scents theory is great, although since proved not strictly correct. In fact the whole book is great but the style of writing does remind me of Basil Fawlty when he loses his rag completely: erudite, scathing and bordering on the hysterical. If you are interested in the science of smelling, human perception, the pschology of scent, and how easily we can be fooled into believing we are smelling something we are not, you've got to read it.
In his book and in his blog, Avery Gilbert is gobsmackingly rude, not just about dead European writers but to living scientists he doesn't agree with. What the Nose Knows isn't merely cricital, it's astonishingly bitchy. I don't know how he sleeps at night.
On the huge question of how the brain perceives scent, whether it's shape or vibration, I recommend that you read both this, and Chandler Burr's book The Emperor of Scent. Gilbert doesn't think it's a question; the answer for him is shape. I'd disagree, but I'm terrified of him. And he looks so sweet and mild in his author photograph...