Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Prose of Desire: Our Brief (and Disappointing) Journey Through Our Most Underrated Sense

"Our sense of smell even tells us with whom it would be biologically best to conceive a child, and it can make someone with movie-star looks unappealing and the plainest person the object of obsessive passion. Our sense of smell is truly our sense of desire."
                   --Rachel Herz

This month's get together began with Nichole posting the question, "Did you know that your sense of smell creates the 'flavor' of your food?" And with that, we began reading Rachel Herz' Scent of Desire.  And Nichole's question encapsulates the group's feelings towards the book. Her question is essentially a fun tidbit about our sense of smell, and although we agreed that Herz is a good researcher and academic, her book provided little more than a few interesting factoids. 

Essentially, we believe that Herz is a scholar who tried to dilute her science for a pop audience but failed because she doesn’t quite have the writing skill for it. Her style lacked the ease that flows from a well-oiled, mellifluous pen. She probably would have been better off if she just made it much more technical but kept only the anecdotes. We all tended to blame her editors rather than her. Everything from the misleading title, the incongruent book cover, and the somewhat forced chapter section headings, reflect artificial attempts to make the subject more readable.  
All that said, she aroused our interest when she discussed how cultures differ in the smells they find acceptable. Burning flesh sounds disgusting to me, but cremated bodies are so ingrained in Indian religion, that it’s a pleasant smell. I also liked finding out that spearmint, though a nice smell to an American nose, is anathema to the British b/c it is so much associated with dressing wounds during World War II. That type of stuff was interesting. But her weaving in the science behind her findings left us wanting.

 The cultural comparisons were nice and her “history of smell” sections that would appear unexpectedly within some of the paragraphs caught my attention. For example, how St. Francis of Assisi believed dirt was holy and that this mindset didn’t change much until the 18th century reminded me how the modern world we live in is light years different from the world most of human history has lived in, not just b/c of technology but how the world views nature. Unfortunately,  she cited texts that seemed to have already covered those subjects. I do wonder if That’s Disgusting, her other book on the subject, might be stronger and might deal with, in greater detail, some of the more interesting parts of the book that Herz only touches on.  That said, this was a science book, and the science seemed to be info that I’ve never really thought about but was something I always knew. More specifically, the science didn’t illuminate anything; it merely confirmed information that I would’ve suspected anyway. 
She didn’t provide complicated biology, so in that sense, she stayed consistent with her attempt to write a pop text. But I felt she didn’t say enough to change any perceptions I already had. For instance, her connection between scents an emotions was worth talking about. But it’s not something particularly groundbreaking, which disappoints me b/c I feel she has done groundbreaking resource. I believe that all of our senses have that ability. I do wish (and Nichole hit on this as well) that she made interesting the concept of how smell and pathos happen so quickly it’s as if the two were interchangeable. We just wish she would have gone further. 

Ultimately, we can't recommend this. If I read a pop science book, I want to feel like I’m being intellectually & experientially elevated. Instead, I feel like Herz left me flat. And it wasn’t her so much as the subject matter. It’s good to have a book on the subject, but it’s not something I particularly glad I read. I’m glad to have finished. Nichole said she wanted to read this, in part, after reading the science and smooth prose of Richard Dawkins' The God Gene. And I think Bob's quiet, almost apologetic response of, "yeah, but Dawkins is a good writer" says it all. Whether her or her editors are the ones who fell short, either way, it lacked artistry and content. 


ND said...

Note that I read Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene (I haven't read The God Delusion just yet). And I don't think that I disliked it as much as yall did. I would still recommend it to some of my friends, with the disclaimer that it jumps around quite a bit but is full of fun facts. It was interesting & just informative enough for me to enjoy the read.

wordswordswords said...

Ok, cool. Noted. Also, I wanna read "The Selfish Gene," too.