Friday, March 30, 2012

Book Review (=Rant): "Smell: The Secret Seducer" by Piet Vroon, Anton van Amerongen and Hans de Vries

If you're interested in the content contained within this book, skip to the "read more" button. If you enjoy reading rants about the quality of the book, read and grumble with me.
image via Amazon

I read this book on the plane on my way to New York. I'd finished writing my term papers the day before, which ended up being about 40 pages (single-spaced) of extremely well-cited research paper. I read no less than 36 articles, thoroughly annotated a bibliography, and thought critically about the contents. SO, going into this book, I had high expectations of academic rigor (CITE EVERYTHING. This is something I have to tell my students all the time. If you don't say where you got it, I think it's from you, and there is no way you knew all that shit to start with, and throughout this book found myself wondering why the editors hadn't done the same for these authors). On a purely impressionistic level (not like I'm going to tally this up or anything, sheesh), only about a third of the statements in this book had footnotes giving their source. Now, I understand it was written by 3 people, and their combined knowledge would undoubtedly account for some of that. But 2/3? Doubtful. 

Also, I read this all in one go (well, okay, I took a break to switch planes, eat, and take a nap), but all the material was pretty fresh in my mind, and I noticed a lot of repetition. Like, did you know that the area in the brain responsible for smell has very few links to the language parts of the brain, which helps account for why we have such trouble describing words? Well, after reading this book, you'll never forget, because it's mentioned so. many. times. There are several other examples like that: women have a better sense of smell than men, smell is very important in the bonding of mother and baby, perfumers can't actually smell that much better than norms. If I were writing this as an actual paper, I would include citations of those, though I would be unsure of which citation to use––the first? The fifth? The last (often, like, 20th)? This should not be an issue! Agh!

More editing complaints (I'm sorry, I'm a linguist and appreciate that everyone speaks differently and those differences should be respected, but the same principle does not apply for writing. There are standards, and if you are writing a mass-market book, you had damn well better follow them! Also, when I was in high school and had to take that PLAN/Pre-ACT test that told you waht you should be when you grow up, they said funeral director or editor. I don't know what those have in common, either, and I find it very puzzling that there's a large enough market for funeral directors and editors for them to be included in a big test like that. Anyways, [this] tangent over): parentheticals (too many! it's like one of my blog posts, gawd), several of which don't have one or the other parenthesis. Do you know how irritating it is to not know when the parenthetical thought is over? Or when it was supposed to have begun? SO IRRITATING. There are certain standards that should be met in a published book, including (but not limited to) spellcheck [didn't notice anything like that in this book, fortunately], correct punctuation (this includes no floating parentheses! Or colons all over the place: it is very annoying), and clearly structured, non-reductionist information, which this book was sadly lacking at times.

OKAY REAL REVIEW STARTS HERE. Scent: The Secret Seducer is a general interest book on smell that was written in 1997 by Piet Vroon, Anton van Amerongen and Hans de Vries. They are all Dutch, in case the names didn't give that away. One is a biologist, one is a university psychologist, and one is an independent psychologist, so there is a relatively well-rounded approach to the material (though I must say a more anthropological/sociological perspective could have been a nice addition, if only to make them source some of the more ridiculous claims). The book has 8 chapters plus a conclusion. The chapters are:

1. The History of Smelling, on how smells have been perceived in the past 2000ish years. It's a very limited account, and I found the structure to be confusing; I'm not sure whether it was supposed to be ordered chronologically or by theme (when smells were valued and when they were disparaged), since it tended to jump around. They do talk a lot about how smell is an understudied sense (this is another one of those topics they repeat ad nauseum), and explain the hierarchy of macrosmates (good smellers, like dogs, insects, rodents, pigeons, and snakes, Vroon 1997:17-18 [OH MY GOD I CAN'T NOT CITE]), microsmates (humans, most birds, many reptiles, Vroon 1997:18-19), and anosmates (non-smellers, like moles, 19). Okay, guys, I'm going to try and take off my Academic Cap and put on my Lazy Student on Vacation Cap and not write a friggin' annotated entry for this book. If you want to know more, you can read it yourself.

2. The Olfactory Organ, which is a bunch of biology stuff. I skipped the second half of it because I didn't care to figure out what they were trying to say. 

3. The Nature of Smell, or how things smell and how we've tried to classify them. Relatively interesting, if at times redundant.

4. Smell Over One's Lifetime, which was actually a very interesting and informative chapter on how our sense of smell changes over our lives. Not too technical.

5. Smell and Memory, where they talk about smell's relationship to memory and really ramble on about how smell is located in the right hemisphere, where emotion is, and hey, did you know that's why smells make us feel certain ways? I would have enjoyed it more if it had been half the length. 

6. Odor-Driven Behavior, or: pheromones, and how they don't really have an effect on humans. This had some good information, but it was also poorly organized.

7. Perfumes and Olfactory Passports. Hey, perfume! The whole reason I checked out this book! It wasn't actually that interesting. They do say that perfumes may be used to repel potential mates, which is contrary to what marketers want to hear, but I don't really care either way; earlier they mentioned that women usually wear perfume for themselves, not others, which is definitely true for me. Unfortunately, there was a whole lot of deterministic evolutionary psychology nonsense that almost made me stop reading the book (but I was almost done, so I figured I should finish it, and then write this review!). They talk about how women wearing perfume are seen as being less competent than women who aren't wearing perfume by men, but more competent by women, which isn't in itself that terrible, though the nature of the studies they cited wasn't given so I can't say if the results were reliable or valid. The problematic part (that actually led me to dog ear a library book so I wouldn't forget the page) is the following:
"Many male university teachers know that it can be difficult to examine a seductively dressed, heavily perfumed female student orally. The examiners ask questions that are unclear and don't listen to the student's answers properly. As a result, the examination may become a succession of confusions and misunderstandings. A beautiful student would be advised to dress decorously and rather casually and to use at most a whiff of prfume. Possibly the questions posed to her will be more difficult (because the teacher is not distracted), but her answers will probably get through to him better." (Vroon 1997:155).
This is the kind of attitude that rape apologists take. "If she hadn't been wearing that short skirt, she wouldn't have been raped!" As a woman and survivor, that kind of rhetoric makes me want to KILL EVERYTHING. It is completely absurd that men can't be expected to control themselves, and that women should modify their behavior to get treated with respect. Why not tell the professors to modify their behavior? AGH!

8. Olfactory Disorders, which talks about the variety of disorders that can impair sense of smell, including dementia, viruses, birth defects, and violent accidents. Pretty interesting, though also somewhat confusingly structured.

9. Conclusion, wherein they basically just summarize the important bits from the previous chapters in bullet form. It's better organized than most of the chapters, and doesn't have the same problem with redundancy.

Do I recommend this book? Meh. Sure, I learned some stuff, but I would have learned just as much in half the time if I'd just looked into it online. If you're going to be stuck on a plane and don't want to pay for internet and have a passing interest in smell, it may be worth checking out. There are probably newer books that have come out that include more recent research (I'm sure there's been stuff in the past 15 years), and your best bet would probably be to look for those. This one happened to be reviewed on Now Smell This and available at the university library, but I have to say, it makes me miss my dense journal articles. Perhaps if you don't share my bias against evolutionary psychology, you'll enjoy the book more, but I absolutely loathe that line of argument (because it leads to so many ridiculous claims about human behavior).

Anyways. It was a decent way to pass a few airplane hours, and it led to this (holy shit way too long) blog post, so I guess it's not a total loss.

Have you read Scent: The Secret Seducer? Have you found yourself wishing for more vigorously researched books? Do you find book reviews to be helpful at all? (In general, not this one in particular, since honestly I doubt anyone will find it that helpful. Sorry, guys, for so often going off on ranty tangents.)
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