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book review

Early in his new book about taste, Benjamin Errett signals his own. "Everyone knows there are two definitions of 'taste,' " he writes. "What the book presupposes is, maybe there aren't."

He's paraphrasing Eli Cash, Owen Wilson's character in Wes Anderson's 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums. A drugged-up, hyperpretentious writer of historical fiction, Cash describes his novel Old Custer with the following, tantalizing pitch: "Everyone knows Custer died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is … maybe he didn't."

As a reference, it's pretty much perfect: sly, unsourced, just-obscure-enough. It hangs out there like an open palm of a secret handshake, extended to anyone who is equipped to grab it. Those savvy enough to catch a reference to a middlebrow ensemble comedy are expected to be won over to Errett's side. "This guy likes what I like," an imagined reader may think. And in discussing matters of taste – and in criticism more generally – a sense of friendly affinity goes a long way.

Late in his book, Errett writes about recommendation algorithms and how "before you crack open the recommended book, you should trust the recommender." Elements of Taste, the author's follow-up, of sorts, to his Elements of Wit, his 2014 guide to "being interesting," established that trust early on.

If the Tenenbaums reference soars over anyone's head, it's really not a big deal. Because, more than being a joke or a vacuous nod to a piece of pop culture, the line constitutes the actual thesis of Elements of Taste, a book that thinks through taste (that is, cultural discernment; the process by which we determine and display the stuff we like) using taste (that is, the perception of flavour on the tongue) as a structuring metaphor. It may seem more than a little hokey. But the thing is: it works. More or less.

To develop his thesis, and create his "Grand Unified Theory of Taste," Errett maps the five basic tastes found on the tongue (which are sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami) onto a structure for entertainment preferences established in a 2011 academic paper (which are communal, dark, thrilling, aesthetic and cerebral). Through a series of case studies and abridged riffs on various pop cultural preoccupations, from Coldplay through to True Detective and "futurist cooking," Errett proposes that all cultural objects are constituted by the metaphorical interplay of these five basic flavours. So, for example, the wildly popular Marvel Cinematic Universe is wildly popular because of its "sweet-sour combo" of "thrills without danger, just enough excitement to raise your heart rate but not enough to worry you."

Errett does a fine job justifying his extended analogy, however arbitrary it may seem (indeed, as he notes, even the taste centres found on our tongues are not some "Newtonian law handed down by evolution" but rather "a basic consensus"). Where Elements of Taste distinguishes itself from other contemporary tomes about taste is in its refreshing prescriptiveness.

Errett serves up "tasting menus" for readers, creating a harmony between those five central cultural flavours. "Have the sour thrills of pop-punk lost their edge?" he asks his reader. "Perhaps some bitterly atonal experimental music will reawaken your taste buds." Here, Elements of Taste becomes a model for a handmade, bespoke recommendation algorithm. It's enough to justify Errett's book. But the compulsion to dissect matters of taste at all still feels a bit odd.

Readings books about taste or the pseudo-science of cultural popularity, I am often reminded (and here I'll reveal my own pop cultural affinities) of that scene in The Simpsons in which a massive restaurant chain attempts to distill the ingredients of the "Flaming Moe," a trendy alcoholic beverage that's seemingly impossible to faithfully replicate. After sending the cocktail through some cockamamie machine, its components are printed out on a sheet of dot matrix paper. "The secret ingredient," says the nasally researcher-in-charge, "is: Love?!"

In studies of taste and discernment, whether rigorously academic (as in Pierre Bourdieu) or more informal (as in Errett), the secret ingredient is always love. Or something like it, anyway. There's always some irreducible remainder, some je ne sais quoi that justifies why we like what we like, beyond the algorithms and formulas and ad hoc schemata of judgment. In his bestselling Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, Derek Thompson works through all manner of lively case studies for why things click in a given cultural milieu, only to arrive at the slightly annoying conclusion that hits are accelerated by a smattering of "magic sprinkle dust" (this is made extra-annoying because Thompson is abusing the much more common phrase "magic pixie dust").

Likewise, in Elements of Taste, Errett uses umami, that savoury taste that awakens the back of the tongue when you eat shiitake mushrooms or dry-aged beef, as "the indescribable taste … that we clearly crave but can't quite identify." Beyond the fact that actual, on-the-tongue umami is fairly easy to identify (especially if you know what you're looking, or tasting, for) such deferrals to an indescribable remainder always feel unsatisfactory. If the deconstruction of taste always leaves some dangling leftover, and if that leftover is itself the very essence of our taste formation, then the whole endeavour feels rather pointless.

And so, we're left with another structuring remainder: a nagging contradiction in the whole enterprise of analyzing taste. The proliferation of books on taste and popularity suggest the benefit of developing an exhaustive, exacting understand of why we like what we like. They presuppose that there are good reasons for labouring over motivations for our private, personal preferences. Then again, you know, maybe there aren't.

John Semley is the author of This Is a Book About the Kids in the Hall and a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail.

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