Reading Smell

JUNE 2016

My first book, Reading Smell (now available as part of Bucknell University Press's Transits series), emerged from a fascination with the problem of language in the realm of olfaction: unlike vision, smell lacks a common vocabulary.  While Constance Classen has attempted to assemble a glossary of sense words, it is sprawling and not universally-accepted. 
Consider how perfume is discussed and described.  Amongst themselves, traditionally-trained perfumers working in the major flavors and fragrance manufacturers can use precise names of chemical compounds amongst themselves with crystal clarity.  Günther Ohloff, Wilhelm Pickenhagen and Philip Kraft’s Scent and Chemistry: The Molecular World of Odors (2011) is a good example of this language, requiring both firm understanding of chemistry and a trained nose familiar with their hundreds of fragrance allusions in order to fully come alive.  In order to translate to their clients, perfumers adopt terminology from music (notes, accords), and strip their language of chemical accuracy.  Once in the marketing department, this language is further altered (often beyond recognition) by advertising that is designed to seduce rather than inform.

In reaction to the smoke and mirrors “illusion” and “glamour,” amateur enthusiasts have created their own language that is an interesting patois: occasionally precise, often allusive, and heavily comparative [“this smells like ____”].  In this subculture, perfumers who previously lived an anonymous, uncredited existence find themselves discussed as “authors” and have increasingly claimed the title themselves.

Reading Smell is focused on smells as they were used in my primary area of study: the long eighteenth-century (1660-1820).  However, I am already collecting examples of modern perfumer-authors and the people who write about them for a future project on how we talk about smell today.

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