What the Nose Knows – A Book Review

Posted by Keith Wallace

If I were to describe a wine as boasting a nose with hints of geosmin (damp earth), phenyl ethyl alcohol (rosy scent), some methylthiobutryate (feces), and a lingering waft of androstenone (truffle) in the finish, you would rightly think that I was full of said methylthiobutryate.

Lucky for us, Avery Gilbert isn’t.  And his book What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life is a truly delightful and enlightening book. One we recommend to anyone in a sommelier course.

What the Nose Knows is full of surprising facts – historical, scientific, literary, and otherwise.  Where else could one learn that butyric acid produces the odor of smelly feet, that the perfume atomizer eventually led to the scratch ‘n’ sniff which led to the two-year era of Smell-O-Vision that eventually led to John Water’s Polyester; and that Proust, for all those who would put him at the forefront of the neurosciences, described not one smell in his tome Remembrance of Things Past.

In considering smellscapes, Gilbert brilliantly touches upon the emotional, thus exploring how odors affect a person’s well-being.  And how those said emotions are intensely studied so that a marketplace – whose survival thrives on the comforts of its consumer base – can utilize scent in ways both expected and surprising.  If not a little eerie. 

Gilbert’s pursuit of olfaction is science writing at its best as it does not read “sciencey,” and Gilbert, for all his seeming modesty, does a lot more than his simple assertion of “taking a fresh look at odor perception and how it plays out in popular culture” allows.  This true connoisseur of the senses has written a book rich in curiosity that is as beguiling as educating. No methylthiobutryate.

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