22 March 2022

Review: Revelations in Air by Jude Stewart

Revelations in Air: A Guidebook to Smell by Jude Stewart audiobook cover

Like sleep, smell has interested me for as long as I can remember. I've always had a keen sense of smell and I set out to learn more about the process of olfaction when I started listening to Revelations in Air: A Guidebook to Smell by Jude Stewart.

The author's choice to break down fragrances and smells into the following groups was a novel approach:

Flowery & Herbal
Sharp & Pungent
Salty & Nutty
Tingling & Fresh

These creative categories provided a neat structure for exploring smell by learning more about a number of fragrances within each group. In taking this approach, the author describes the smell to the reader while also delivering an overview of the item being discussed. This resulted in a 'micro history' of fragrances like jasmine, hot chocolate, tobacco, truffles and cash to name a few.

The audiobook is narrated by Gabra Zackman, and her tendency to sometimes over pronounce or over-emphasise words and phrases began to grate on my nerves after a while. I suspect the poetic nature of some of the descriptions begged to be acknowledged, but I found it off-putting.

An unavoidable limiting factor when reading or learning about smell is that the reader can't smell the thing being described. Of course, for this book, you could assemble the items according to the table of contents, but usually readers don't have that advantage. The author does a terrific job describing certain scents like: cinnamon, durian, stinky cheese, freshly sharpened pencils, frankincense, new car, new baby or old books, and being familiar with these items I could quickly relate.

However fragrances like ambergris, petrichor, skunk, truffles and melting permafrost left me frustratingly unsatisfied and stubbornly wishing I could smell these in the real world, despite their detailed descriptions.

Stewart makes some observations I wanted her to explore further, like this one about line-dried laundry. Why doesn't washing that's hung outside in cities smell like pollution or absorb the smells of the heavily populated streets below? I'd like to know why my apartment doesn't smell like the scented candles I burn every night when I come home from a few days away.

Stewart also had an engaging section about vanilla as the base of all flavour, and the contrast between white and black, with the seeds being black, but perception that vanilla is white. I'd never considered that vanilla was its flavour and instead always considered it as the base flavour, especially with respect to ice-cream.

I also enjoyed the chapter discussing 'Smell as Emotional Time Travel' but somehow still wanted more. The exercises in the book were promising, although acknowledging and noticing smells is already a regular part of my existence, noting smells multiple times an hour. It was a timely reminder that many people don't notice or acknowledge the presence of smells within their immediate environment.

Revelations in Air: A Guidebook to Smell by Jude Stewart is recommended to non fiction readers who enjoy micro histories and whiffing out information relating to our sense of smell.

For more on ambergris, you can check out my review of Floating Gold: The Search for Ambergris, The Most Elusive Substance in the Natural World by Christopher Kemp as well as my interview with the author.

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. I borrowed Floating Gold from the library yesterday after reading about it here.

    1. Wow that's brilliant! I was fascinated to learn more about the search for ambergris and its origins and I hope you find it equally as engaging.

  2. Sounds interesting Tracey, thanks for sharing your thoughts

    1. Thanks Shelleyrae, and a bonus that it also qualified for your non fiction reading challenge!


Thanks for your comment, Carpe Librum!