The Putrid and the Divine Book Club 2019


A few years back, after receiving several requests for more information on topics covered in the blog, I made a lengthy list of over 50 books to indulge our olfactive bookworms. In retrospect, that list was a bit daunting. At first, I was planning to just do an updated tighter edit of that list but instead, I thought wouldn’t it be great to delve a little deeper with my readers and explore topics surrounding olfaction together. So instead, I devised The Putrid and the Divine Book Club.

What is the Putrid and the Divine Book Club? Well, it is a brand spanking new Goodreads book club that will meet once a month to discuss olfactive culture with my own spooky dark twist to things, of course. The aim of the club is to deconstruct our notions on the role of smell in our lives and in culture. To literally examine what has been under our noses the whole time and what they can teach us about ourselves and our communities.

We will be focusing our discussion each month around one book in particular along with some alternative titles and articles. I’ll be trying whenever possible to point you to low or no cost reads, as well as providing my own material to help guide the discussion. Even if you didn’t read that month’s book, or read it in the past, feel free to join the discussion group where we will be using the text as a jumping off point to talk about bigger and smellier things.

In order to tantalise you more, my fragrant readers here is the line up of books and a bit about why I chose these titles.

February: Begining at the Begining


The Book

A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman

Why I Picked It

I chose this book to start with because it is a great primer on the importance of the senses and their often unseen impact on day to day life. This book isn’t limited to olfaction and covers all the senses but I think it is a great beginning to start thinking with our noses.

March: The Nose


The Book

What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life by Avery Gilbert

Why I Picked It

This popular science book is a good starting point for understanding (or not understanding) how the nose works, but also incorporates elements of the fragrance business, culture and the effects of scents on our lives.

April: Scent and Culture


The Book

The Smell Culture Reader edited by Jim Drobnick

Why I Picked It

The Smell Culture Reader is a valuable book for those interested in the impact of olfaction on culture and the human experience. While I recommend reading the whole book, we are going to be looking at a few specific essays that highlight the differing role olfaction plays in ritual as well as trauma.

May: Scent and the Personal Narrative


The Book

The Perfume Lover by Denyse Beaulieu

Why I Picked It

The choices we make in scenting ourselves, our homes, and even how we as a culture approach fragrance is a form of narrative. What is good, what is bad, what is taboo, we are telling stories to ourselves and others through scent. We collect odours from points in our lives by tying them to memories. Some you hold on to intentionally and others you didn’t even know have become part of your olfactive life. Part of who you are is locked up in that fragrance and the narrative of that scent.

I think this memoir is an excellent example of olfactive narration. Not only because Beaulieu is witty and adept at spinning her tale but we get to watch her build her own olfactive narrative in the story in ways that leave a lot open for interpretation and discussion.

June: What Does it Mean to be Clean


The Book

Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity by Virginia Smith

Why I Picked It

Clean is a loaded term that draws strong responses from people. No one wants to be known as being unclean, but what exactly does it mean to be clean? Where does physical hygiene end and spiritual hygiene begin? What does it mean to smell clean? These are the kind of questions Smith delves into in this work.

July: Historical Perspectives on Olfaction


The Book

Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell by Jonathan Reinarz

Why I Picked It

Past Scents is packed with information about the olfactive history of Europe and the Mediterranean, but more then factoids, Reinarz uses his scholarship as a medical historian to show that the cultural experience of odour is a valuable tool to understanding a society’s values.

August: Fragrance, Luxury & Revolution


The Book

A Scented Palace: The Secret History of Marie Antoinette’s Perfumer by Elisabeth de Feydeau

Why I Picked It

While the story de Feydeau is telling is a fairly straightforward popular history of Marie Antoinette’s perfumer, Jean-Louis Fargeon, it does contextualise Fargeon and his work within the social landscape of the time. The period just prior to the French Revolution has an enormous amount to teach us about an apathetic 1% spoiling themselves on luxuries while others struggle to make ends meet and dealing with governmental ineptitude. The role of an up and coming but firmly middle-class perfumer thrown into that context raises a lot of questions about the self and community as well as the role of luxury products in society. I think this is a great book to read to discuss commercial fragrance culture (aka the perfume industry) and the very concept of luxury in modern times.

September: Scent, Health & Disgust


The Book

The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination (aka Le miasme et la jonquille) by Alain Corbin

Why I Picked It

Corbin’s book is a classic and essential to understanding the influences on the French olfactive landscape which in turn has influenced much of European and North American sensibilities around scent. I also think this book gives us tools to discuss the two following books in greater depth

October: Scent, Geography & Public Space


The Book

The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis by Stephen Halliday

Why I Picked It

Building on the foundation we will have from Corbin, we are going to look at one of the worst summers in British history in depth and discuss how olfaction was part of shaping the landscape of not only London but the modern cityscape.

November: Perfume as Magic Potion


The Book

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

Why I Picked It

I’ll admit I’m not a huge personal fan of this book for several reasons, but I wanted to discuss the literary devices of perfume as magic and olfaction as supernatural, as I think it reveals a lot about how society is both apprehensive and fascinated with smells. I think Suskind does a great job of presenting olfaction as animalistic and otherworldly, with a blend of passion and terror to make a perfume a magical elixir.

December: Smelly Saints


The Book

Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination by Susan Ashbrook Harvey

Why I Picked It

What better way to end the year than with this great work by Susan Ashbrook Harvey. This book is a masterpiece is understanding olfactions impact on ritual and religion. Harvey contextualises the importance of olfaction in ancient Mediterranean culture and how the scented taboos and pleasures of the era affected the sensory understandings of the early church.

For more details check out our Goodreads group or email me