Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Being a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz

I was a little uncertain about reading this book, even when it was sent to me by the publisher as an ARC. I mean, I read Horowitz's last book, Inside of a Dog, which I enjoyed even though I am not particularly a dog person. Particularly, it was helpful in letting me understand what is going on behind doggy eyes and noses a bit more. But from just the title, my question was whether or not this book was going to be very different. Are we just rehashing what I've already read? 

As it turns out, this book was varied enough that I avoided my worst worry of a retread. It's still not the sort of book I'd probably seek out on my own, but for nonfiction of the type, it's well-written and entertaining, with at least a few anecdotes I felt the need to tell my husband. Horowitz's voice is inobtrusive, and when I did notice it, it was to appreciate a bit of well-placed irreverence or cussing.

The book starts with how dogs smell, and comes back to the topic frequently, but is really about smelling more generally, and how dogs utilize smell differs from how humans do, and the strengths and weaknesses of human smell. At the end, she concludes that we still can't quite conceptualize how dogs smell, as so much of our own taste of smell is tied, she argues, to language. This is a convincing argument, made subtly over the length of the book. And so, with our ways of organizing and smelling conceptually, we're still not a lot closer to knowing how dogs experience smell. That they can, and that they excel, there's no question. But what it's like, that's quite different.

I think it's too harsh to call this book inoffensive. It's really quite a pleasant read, and made me pay more attention to what I was smelling, at least until I got struck down by a dreaded summer cold that has laid me up for the last several days. But it's not a ton more than that. It's very much in the genre that Mary Roach has staked out, although Horowitz' own science background contributes in interesting ways.

Like Roach, Horowitz has picked a subject and moved around it, examining from many different angles all passed on to the reader through as much personal experience as she can garner. It works as a way of writing science non-fiction, giving laypeople an entry into a world they might otherwise not see. Or smell, I suppose, in this case.

Smell, it is often said, most elegantly by Proust, is the key to memory. We can be brought back to childhood by smells that unlock memories. While I don't dispute this, I think the most interesting thing Horowitz does here is to make it clear how hard it is to smell smells detached from context. Memory itself seems to be tied intrinsically to locating a smell, or a smell a memory. But when you're just put in front of a box with a 1000 smells, as she was, without context, you're at sea. Memories don't always pop up, and the smell remains frustrating without language or a past. 

I'm not really sure what more to say. Being A Dog has a slightly misleading title, being only about half about dogs, and half about smelling in general. The two halves are mated thematically, if not compellingly. If this is a genre you like, this will serve you well on the subject of scent. I enjoyed reading it, although I'm not that sure how long the book will linger in my memory - there's nothing that grabbed me intensely, although much I had pleasure reading.

(An ARC of this book was provided in exchange for an honest review from Simon & Schuster Canada)

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