AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Saturday, 18 November 2017


Studies of avid readers have found that books have an emotional affirmation. They make people feel better about themselves, provide confirmation that other people have gone through the same things, they help people think through problems in their own lives and help clarify their feelings. They broaden horizons and give them a window into other lives and other societies and help them both engage with the world beyond their personal circumstances and escape from pressures in their daily lives.

Here’s the description of a reader who found escape and enlightenment simultaneously in reading: from Greg Bottoms' book Angelhead, a rather disturbing memoir of his brother’s schizophrenia:
At some point – I can’t pinpoint exactly when – I realized that books made sense of the worst things, even if they seemed stunted and dark, offering nothing but a crippled epiphany. These were the ones I gravitated toward then: Poe, DostoevskyThe Tell-Tale Heart and White Nights are, to me, schizophrenic classics – and the American pulp novelists of mid-century. I began reading all the time, endlessly, book after book, always looking to find the grand tragedy rendered with meaning-the more transgressive, the more violent, the better because by the middle of the book I wanted to see how this mess would be fixed, how a life, even a sad, broken, imaginary life, could be saved. I started to believe-and I still believe-that I could somehow save myself with a story, and even though I couldn’t save anyone else, I could try to understand them, attempt to grant them at least that, and perhaps it is in this, this attempt to understand, that a person is truly saved . . . I am not exaggerating when I say books saved my life; or put another way, books saved my mind and helped me to understand my life. (104-6)
~ * ~
In the following essay Margaret Atwood describes her years of growing up reading books. We also get a glimpse of her favourites.
Margaret Atwood

by Margaret E. Atwood

I learned to read before I started school. My mother claims I taught myself because she refused to read comics to me. Probably my older brother helped: he was writing comic books himself, and may have needed an audience.

In any case, the first books I can remember were a scribbled-over copy of Mother Goose and several Beatrix Potters, from her Dark Period (the ones with knives, cannibalistic foxes, and stolen babies in them). Then came the complete, unexpurgated Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which my parents ordered by mail, unaware that it would contain so many red-hot shoes, barrels full of nails, and mangled bodies. This was in the 1940s, just after the war. It was becoming the fashion, then, to rewrite fairy tales, removing anything too bloodthirsty and prettying up the endings, and my parents were worried that all the skeletons and gouged-out eyes in Grimm’s would warp my mind. Perhaps they did, although Bruno Bettelheim has since claimed that this sort of thing was good for me. In any case I devoured these stories, and a number of them have been with me ever since.

Shortly after this I began to read everything I could get my hands on. At that time my family was spending a lot of time in the northern Canadian bush, where there were no movie theatres and where even radio was unreliable: reading was it. The school readers, the notorious milk-and-water Dick and Jane series, did not have much to offer me after Grimm’s. See Jane Run, indeed. Instead I read comic books and the backs of cereal boxes. I tried ‘girls’ books’ — The Bobbsey Twins by Laura Lee Hope, The Curlytops series by Howard Garis, Cherry Ames, Junior Nurse — but they weren’t much competition for Batman or for red-hot iron shoes. ( Anne of Green Gables was an exception; that one I loved.) I made my way through the standard children’s classics, some of which I’d already heard, read out loud by my mother — The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, the Alice books, Treasure Island. Gulliver’ s Travels is not really a children’s book, but was considered one because of the giants, so I read that too.

I read Canadian animal stories — those by Sir Charles G. D. Roberts and Ernest Thompson Seton, for instance — in which the animals always ended up dead. Such books appeared regularly at Christmas — adults seemed to think that any book about animals was a children’s book — and I would snivel my way through the trapped, shot and gnawed corpses of the various rabbits, grouse, foxes and wolves that littered their pages, overdosing on chocolates. I read Orwell’s Animal Farm, thinking that it too was a story about animals, and was seriously upset by the death of the horse.

By this time I was about ten or eleven, and I’d begun dipping into the adult shelves. I can recall with great clarity the Dell pocket-book mysteries, the ones with the map of the crime scene on the back and the eye in a keyhole on the front, along with the lurid picture of the strangled blonde in the red strapless gown. One mystery in particular stands out: the murder was done by tying the victim to a tree, naked, during mosquito season. (Living where I did, I found this highly plausible.) I read a junky science-fiction magazine left behind by a guest, and vividly remember a story in which the beautiful women of Planet X hunt men down, paralyse them with a bite on the neck, and lay eggs on them like spiders. I used to drag the really dubious books off into corners, like dogs with bones, where no one would see me reading them.

I resorted to flashlights under the covers. I knew good trash when I saw it. I don’t think these books influenced my writing, but they certainly influenced my reading. Around this time too I read the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe, which some fool had put in the school library on the assumption that anything without sex in it was suitable for young minds. This experience disturbed me in a way that Grimm’s Fairy Tales had not, possibly because Poe is obsessive about detail and sets out to horrify. I had nightmares about decaying or being buried alive, but this did not stop me from reading on.

Attracted by the beautiful woodcuts of whales in our edition, I read Melville’s Moby-Dick, again expecting animals. I skipped the parts about people; I identified with the whale, and was not at all sad when it wrecked the whaler and drowned most of the crew and got away at the end. After all those trapped wolves and poisoned foxes, it was about time for an animal to come out on top.
Moby Dick
When I hit high school, I read Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, and developed what was, in those days before rock stars, a standard passion for Mr Darcy and Heathcliff. (Luckily I did not at that time know any bad-tempered, impolite and darkly brooding young men; otherwise I might have run off with them.) These reading choices were approved of by adults, who liked anything called a classic. Other reading choices were not. In grade nine, for instance, I joined a paperback book club which was in the business of parting teenagers from their allowances, and received a satisfying helping of verbal trash through the mail every month. Donovan’s Brain stands out: it was about an overgrown and demented brain which was being kept alive in a glass jar by scientists — a brain which was trying to take over the world. In addition to colouring my view of politicians, this prepared me for the reading of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, later on.

I discovered the cellar. (By this time we were living in Toronto, and had one.) My parents had two vices which I have inherited — they bought a lot of books, and they found it difficult to throw any of them out. The cellar was lined with bookshelves, and I used to go down there and browse among the books, while eating snacks filched from the kitchen — crackers thickly spread with peanut butter and honey, dates prised off the block of them used for baking, handfuls of raisins, and — one of my favourites — lime jelly powder. The whole experience felt like a delicious escape, and my eclectic eating habits complemented what I was reading, which ranged from scientific textbooks on ants and spiders — my father was an entomologist — to H. G. Wells’s history of almost everything, to the romances of Walter Scott, to old copies of National Geographic, to the theatrical murders of Ngaio Marsh. This is where I came across Churchill’s history of the Second World War, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon — books which did, much later, actually have an influence on something I wrote myself, as The Handmaid’ s Tale emerged from the same fascination with history and the structure of totalitarian regimes.

All of this took place quite apart from school. At school I was practical, and saw myself as someone who would eventually have a serious job of some kind. The drawback to this was that there were only five careers listed for women in the Guidance textbook: home economist, nurse, teacher, airline stewardess, and secretary. Home economists got paid the most, but I was not good at zippers. This was depressing. I read more.

In English, we were studying a Shakespeare play a year, a good deal of Thomas Hardy and some George Eliot, and a lot of poetry, most of it by the romantics and the Victorians. Writing — unlike reading — appeared to be something that had been done some time ago, and very far away. In those days the Canadian high school curriculum had not yet discovered either modern poetry or Canada itself; ‘Canadian writer’ seemed to be a contradiction in terms; and when I realized at the age of sixteen that writing was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, nobody was more surprised than I was.

What do I enjoy reading today? It’s hard to say; it varies from day to day. From where I’m writing at this desk I can see, deposited around the floor of the room, eighteen separate piles or nests of books. They aren’t all there for purposes of enjoyment — some of them are for work — but, starting from left to right, the things on the tops of the piles are: Virago’s catalogue of new books; Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth; a newsletter about health; a book on the origins of humanity; a Canadian literary magazine called Paragraph; Ethel Wilson’s Hetty Dorval; a dictionary of French synonyms; two paperback murder mysteries, one by P. D. James, one by Robert Barnard; Writing the Circle, an anthology of Native (Indian, Inuit or Eskimo) women writers; Kurt Vonnegut’s new novel, Hocus Pocus; a book on wind energy in Denmark — well, you get the idea. Every once in a while I root through the piles, picking out something in them I haven’t yet read, shuffling them around, trying to figure out where to file the books in the various already overcrowded bookcases. Or I add to the piles, or growl over them, protecting them from being tidied up, or haul something off to another location. I read in bed — what a luxury! — or on aeroplanes, where the phone can never ring; or in the bathtub, or in the kitchen. It’s still a random process, and I still love it.

My favourite books

I dislike lists of top ten favourite books, because they don’t give you enough room. Novels? Poetry? Non-fiction? Do collected works count? Does the Bible? Does The Joy of Cooking?

But here are five novels I’ve read recently and enjoyed a lot. They have not all been written recently; it’s just that I did not get around to them at the time: Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet; Louise Erdrich, The Beet Queen; Toni Morrison, Beloved; Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart; Nawar El Sadawi, The Fall of the Imam.

And here are five Canadian novels I’ve read and reread over the years: Anne Hébert, Kamouraska; Alice Munro, The Lives of Girls and Women; Margaret Laurence, The Stone Angel; Robertson Davies, Fifth Business; Timothy Findley, The Wars.


(Bloomsbury India’s The Pleasure of Reading, from which the essay has been excerpted, can be bought here)

Thursday, 16 November 2017


Fragrant Attraction
The power of fragrance in sexual attraction
Rachel Herz Ph.D.
by Rachel Herz Ph.D.
(Psychology Today)

Many people, including mavens in the fragrance industry, believe that aromatic aphrodisiacs exist, and are only waiting to be found. The competition in the commercial world for this holy grail is fierce because if such a magical elixir could be captured it would be the beginning of a trillion dollar industry, not to mention the solution to loneliness and guaranteed success for nights out on the prowl. Type the word "pheromone" into Google and you'll get hundreds of hits for companies offering to sell you wearable pheromones "guaranteed for sexual success", along with various merchants purporting "data" that their elixirs boost the sex life of those wearing it. But think for a minute about how we might also interpret data that wearing these potions makes those donning them more sexually successful.

The marketers of Wonder Bra in Canada used a wonderful truism in an ad jingle of the 1970's; "if you look good you feel good, and if you feel good you look great." If you believe that by putting something on-whatever it might be-it will make you more attractive to the opposite sex, your behavior will change. You'll feel more confident and secure and you'll be more flirtatious and happy-which will increase your attractiveness to others and thereby boost your sex life. None of this has anything to do with mysterious pheromones, rather it has all to do with self-confidence.

Indeed in a recent study conducted in the UK, men who wore the British label version of AXE deodorant (Lynx) were rated by woman as significantly more attractive than men who weren't wearing scented deodorant (1). The surprise, however, is that the women didn't actually smell the men-the men just smelled themselves. Women rated headshots of 35 men and 15 second video clips of the same men imagining introducing themselves to an attractive woman. The women rated all the men as equally attractive on the basis of their photos. But on video, the men wearing scented deodorant were rated as significantly more appealing than the men who weren't wearing fragrance, and the women only watched the video clips for 15 seconds. Probing why the AXE men were so much more alluring the researchers found that it had to do with how confident the men felt and how the scent of the deodorant made them feel. The more the men liked the fragrance they were wearing, the more confident they felt-- and the more confident they felt the more attractive their body language was to women. The other amazing finding was that it only took 15 minutes of wearing the scented deodorant to boost the guys' self-confidence. On the opposite side of the aisle, in a large survey study I found that 90% of women (from teenagers to seniors) feel more confident when wearing fragrance than without (2). Therefore wearing a fragrance you like will make you feel better about yourself which will consequently make you more attractive to others.

However, there is biological peril, especially for women, to the magic of fragrance. Not only does a man's use of fragrance make him behave more charmingly, my laboratory has shown that above all other physical characteristics, women rank how a man smells as the most important feature for determining whether she will be sexually attracted to him. Critically, she doesn't discriminate much between whether his scent comes from his clean natural body-odor or from the bottle on his dresser. The reason this is a biological hazard is because, as my last blog explained, our body-odor is the representation of our immune system genes and women use their noses to choose their "correct" biological mate to ensure maximum fertility and child health. Therefore by wearing a fragrance that a woman finds enchanting, a biologically unsuitable man can trick a woman into being with him by "falsely" smelling scrumptious.

The take home message for men is: if you smell good to yourself and to the lady of your dreams you'll be a sure-fire winner. But for women the message is: beware a man who smells too good because of his fragrance. If you think he has potential and you're on the hunt for a man to be your mate, ask him to wash with unscented soap and to kick the fragrance/deodorant habit for a while. If your nose and heart remain enamored then you're on to something good.

(1) Roberts, S.C., Little, A.C., Lyndon, A., Roberts, J., Havlicek, J. & Wright, R.I. (2009). "Manipulation of body odour alters men's self-confidence and judgments of their visual attractiveness by women." International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 31, 47-54.
(2) [now archived]

Scent of a Woman
Testosterone answers the call of a woman's scent
Rachel Herz Ph.D.
by Rachel Herz Ph.D.
(Psychology Today)

Above and beyond looks and bank account size, women rank how a man smells as the number one determinant for whether she'll be sexually attracted to him. Moreover, what men each woman finds most sexy smelling varies widely and is tied to immune system genetics. Everyone (except identical twins) has a genetically unique immune system, and the specific genetic fingerprint of your immune system is outwardly represented by your body odor. Research shows that naturally cycling women prefer the body-odor of men whose immune system genes are relatively different from their own. This "opposites attract" phenomenon is what evolutionary matchmaking aims for, as it is adaptive for fecundity, infant survival and reproductive success.

When it comes to men, the story has been that how a woman looks-her hourglass figure, full lips, lustrous hair and sparkling eyes are what appeal most. This is not superficial or sexist; it makes good evolutionary sense because these physical attributes are in fact signals to youth and health and therefore probabilistic fertility. By contrast, though a few studies have shown that men find a woman's natural body-odor to be most pleasant when she's ovulating, there has been little else to suggest that a man's biology is at all influenced by scent. However, other male mammals use odor as the dominant cue for the initiation of sexual behavior. A male rhesus monkey with a blocked nose will ignore a female in heat. Now new research from Florida State University has revealed that human males may be driven more by the scent of a woman's "heat" than has ever been realized before.

Saul Miller and Jon Manner tested college men for their responses to T-shirts that had been (1) worn to bed by college women who were ovulating, or (2) worn to bed by college women who were not ovulating, or (3) T-shirts that hadn't been worn by anyone (unscented). Regardless of the condition, all men were told that the shirts "had been worn by a woman" and they were asked to take big sniffs of it three times over a 15 minute session. Testosterone levels were measured before they sniffed and then after the 15 minute T-shirt session. Testosterone, the male sex hormone, is directly influenced by external cues- when heterosexual men interact with an attractive woman or watch pornography their testosterone levels rise.

Miller and Mann's study revealed that the men who sniffed T-shirts from ovulating women had higher testosterone levels than the men who sniffed T-shirts that didn't indicate fertility; either worn by non-ovulating women or unworn. But the testosterone levels of the men who smelled the shirts signaling fertility didn't actually increase from their pre-sniff levels, as happens when men are exposed to other overt sexual signals. They just didn't drop – which is what happened to the men in the other conditions – who sniffed T-shirts that didn't indicate fertility. There are various possible explanations for this finding. My speculation is that it reflects the biological response to either a thwarted or successful sexual ‘match to expectation'.

If you tell a heterosexual man that he's going to be smelling a T-shirt from a young woman, evolutionary theory might suggest that he would become interested both mentally and physiologically – as a possible indication of mating to follow. However, if the actual act of sniffing does not in fact signal the "presence" of a woman with immediate reproductive value (as in the case of T-shirts from non-ovulating women or not worn), this unconscious biological disappointment may manifest as a drop in testosterone. By contrast, the constant level of testosterone observed in the men who smelled T-shirts from ovulating women may indicate a match to expectation. In order to test whether this explanation has any merit we would need to know what the level of testosterone was in the men before they were told anything about the T-shirts. Or we might conduct a new study where men are given various types of reproductive information (false or not) about the women whose T-shirts they may be smelling. It would also be fascinating to know whether any testosterone changes occur when heterosexual men smell T-shirts worn by other men (under various "informational" conditions). I could go on. Suffice it to say that this is a fertile field for future research!


Miller, S. L. & Maner J. K. (2010). "Scent of a woman: Men's testosterone responses to olfactory ovulation cues." Psychological Science, 21, 276-283.