A Natural History of the Senses

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 19, 2006

When I posted about a cold of mine back in December that completely killed my sense of smell and taste (they?re both back now, thanks), I asked:

I remember reading a book or article once that mentioned a person who lost their sense of taste and when it would briefly return, that person would drop whatever they were doing and go eat a great meal. Anyone know where that story is from?

In response to that post (but not that specific question), I got a nice email from a reader inquiring about my recent preoccupation with smell (I?ve posted a couple other things about smell in the past months) and identified herself as having thought about smell recently as well. I wrote her back and recommended a favorite book of mine, A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman, specifically the chapters on smell (my favorite part).

I first read this book back in college for a class and it?s one of the few books I keep going back to every few years to reread[1]. After I sent that email, I went to find my dog-eared copy and started reading it. On page 40, in the section about anosmia, I found the answer to my above query. After a year-long fit of sneezing, Judith Birnberg lost her sense of smell and taste, which returned sporadically thereafter:

The anosmia began without warning? During the past three years there have been brief periods ? minutes, even hours ? when I suddenly became aware of odors and knew that this meant that I could also taste. What to eat first? A bite of banana once made me cry. On a few occasions a remission came at dinner time, and my husband and I would dash to our favorite restaurant. On two or three occasions I savored every miraculous mouthful through an entire meal. But most times my taste would be gone by the time we parked the car.

I knew I?d read that somewhere!

[1] Other books I?ve read more than once in adulthood[2]:

Several Roald Dahl books
LoTR series
The Hobbit
Dark Sun
A People?s History of the United States

1984 I?ve probably read 9 or 10 times since I was 10. With the exception of A People?s History (I think I got the gist the first two times around), I?ll probably continue to reread those books indefinitely. Books I hope to reread soon: Lolita, Infinite Jest.

[2] I reread so many books as a kid, including the Roald Dahl books alluded to above, Where the Red Fern Grows, and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.

Reader comments

brice cheddarnJan 19, 2006 at 2:35PM

A People’s History of the United States by Zinn is one of the greatet books of all times. i think everyone should read (and reread) it.

YolandaJan 19, 2006 at 2:42PM

Now I know why I love you. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is one of my favorite books from childhood. I bought a copy when I was 18, because I wanted read it again. Since then, I dig it out of my chest of old children’s books about once a year. With all of the times I ‘ve talked about it, I have never met anyone else who has read it or even heard of it. Glad someone else knows what I’m talking about when I say that the setting sun on snowy mountains looks like mashed potatoes with butter melting on top.

christopherJan 19, 2006 at 2:55PM

If you ever read the Phantom Tollbooth as a child, like I did, I highly recommend you read it again as an adult. There is a lot of whit and word play in it that I didn’t get at 10.

Jerry AlbroJan 19, 2006 at 3:15PM

Have you read ” THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT” by Oliver Sacks? Utterly fascinating…


greyJan 19, 2006 at 3:40PM

Hi, Jason. I had wanted to write you about this when you first mentioned your recent loss of your sense of smell, but perhaps you didn’t have the comments turned on for that post.

My wife has had anosmia (a word I didn’t know until your post; shame on me) since she had stereotactic radiosurgery to treat her brain tumor about 3½ years ago.

That’s all well and good, but it isn’t the really interesting part. The really interesting part is the way it happened to her and the way it works now. During her radiation treatments—during the actual session each day while they were shooting the beams of radiation at her—she had the distinct sensation that the radiation itself smelled like roasted turkey. Now, that obviously wasn’t true, but she was quite sure that something in that room, while the machine was on, smelled like roasted turkey.

Over the weeks following her treatment, her ability to distinguish different smells gradually faded away. Instead of smelling different things—oranges, grass, fire, farts, whatever—everything began to smell like roasted turkey to her. She’s now left with the ability only to discern the intensities of smells, and she sort of ‘measures’ the intensity according to how much she smells roasted turkey. It’s as if roasted turkey is her ‘default’ smell, and that’s all she’s left with.

If you’re ever in a line at the grocery store or stuck in an elevator behind a couple, and the girl says, “I smell turkeys,” to which the guy responds, “oh, that’s just some cologne,” that would be my wife and me. I’m always acting as her nose; we’re always having the ‘I smell turkeys’ conversation.

One last thing, just ‘cause it’s interesting as well: just recently, perhaps over the last six months or so, she’s started to randomly and just momentarily be able to discern one specific other smell at a time. It’s happened, perhaps, three or four times. And it isn’t even like a shock to her; it just happens, and she barely notices it. Just a couple of weeks ago, we were out on our front porch, and she said, “Ahh, someone has their fireplace lit.” It wasn’t until she noticed me standing there with my mouth hanging open that she even realized what had happened.

Such an interesting phenomenon.

AndrewJan 19, 2006 at 3:41PM

My girlfriend and I read Natural History of the Senses to each other on a cross-country roadtrip early in our relationship. It was a lovely, sensual way to get to know each other, digressing from the book into related personal stories and experiences.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is one of my favorite picture books, along with Mercer Mayer’s various monster tales (One Monster After Another in particular).

I reread lots of Roald Dahl and, later, the Hitchhikers Guide books. I think it’s much easier to revisit fantastical stories than “real world” stories, because so much more is left to the imagination.

Matthew PriceJan 19, 2006 at 4:21PM

Having a great sense of taste can be a double edged sword. It would be easier to stay in tip top shape if food didn’t taste so good!

Becky VJan 19, 2006 at 4:23PM

When I was a kid, the enduring images from Cloudy were a) the woman walking around in Gorgonzola snow with the clothespin on her nose, and b) the butter sunrise over the hill of mashed potatoes. That book made me hungry every time I read it.

I have regular reads from my childhood in my before-bed rotation. These include: Matilda, the last half of the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George. Turns out that Jean Craighead George was quite the naturalist. There is something about these books that offers a measure of comfort and rest in a world gone sometimes completely mad.

ypJan 19, 2006 at 4:32PM

Reread “Catcher in the Rye.” I find Salinger changes a lot when you read him at different ages.

KellyJan 19, 2006 at 4:50PM

Diane Ackerman is my favorite author. A very romantic Valentine Day gift is her “A Natural History of Love”. Her newer book “An Alchemy of Mind” is also a terrific read.

tinaJan 19, 2006 at 4:54PM

a natural history of the senses is one of my favorites! i haven’t read it in years, but maybe it is time to pick it up again. thanks for the reminder.

Matt BucherJan 19, 2006 at 4:58PM

If you re-read Lolita, try getting a copy of The Annotated Lolita. I bet it will enhance your reading experience quite a bit (although, like IJ, you will need a second bookmark for the endnotes).

TelJan 19, 2006 at 5:35PM

I also suffer from anosmia (no smell and about 60 percent taste left), i get sporadic return of smell but only if something is intense like garlic or coffee, but can relate to the “roast turkey” default, my default was onions for about 6 months and now its sort of like air freshner… i hope it comes back one day :(

PooJan 19, 2006 at 5:51PM

Keeping with the theme of smell. I re-read Perfume by Patrick Suskind. Very much a comfort book for me, its about a guy who has a gunius sense of smell and sets out to capture the most perfect smell possible. A brilliant story.

ErinJan 19, 2006 at 5:53PM

I have the same feeling about 1984 and a few other books. I like to use them as a gauge to tell how much I’ve changed since the last time I read it. I love that I notice something different each time. I like to use that book and also The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson, like talismans. I just open up the book and start on a line and see what it says about my life right now. The twenty love poems by Adrienne Rich in Dream of a Common Language work for me like that too.

Austin BurnsJan 19, 2006 at 5:54PM

Contact is probably my favorite book, and I’ve read that one many times, as well.

Great book.


megnutJan 19, 2006 at 6:00PM

For me one of the scenes that I clearly recall from Cloudy is when the weather turns all crazy and on that poor kid’s birthday it rains Brussels sprouts and peanut butter. Now I’m grown up and love Brussels sprouts and eat them as much as possible, and almost every time I do, I still think of that part of the book.

JasonJan 19, 2006 at 6:07PM

Once through Lolita was enough for me, but I’ve read Despair three times and I think I’ll be picking up The Defense for a second read soon. That man is so good its scary, and by that I mean sometimes his characters really scare me.

The only way I’ll read Infinite Jest again is if I can attack it with as little interruption as possible, maybe during a long hospital stay, or a (very) long trip to the beach. My first time through I read it on the train while commuting so it was all bits and pieces. I’ll definitely be re-reading a few things from Consider the Lobster though.

John ComeauxJan 19, 2006 at 9:45PM

I am recommending the books I have read multiple times: Galileo’s Daughter; The Endurance; Lewis and Clark: The Corps of Discovery; Charles Dickens’ works, such as David Copperfield and Great Expectations.
I am now going to work thru some of Shakespeare’s works. Wish me luck.

jackieJan 19, 2006 at 9:53PM

As someone who has read Ackerman’s book, I can say the absolute best book ever about the sense of smell is The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr. Both books have their romantic and naturalistic aspects, but Burr’s book is also a scientific mystery story, an underdog tale, a critique of academia and a riveting biography. I can’t say enough about this book, and it has only made me more curious about the sense of smell.

jamesJan 19, 2006 at 10:09PM

Perfume: the story of murderer. A total nose book.

One of those amazing books that changes for awhile your whole perception of the world.

I know your getting lots of comments, and “you must read this”…but i am sure you will enoy and start smelling the world a-new.

Angel NodalJan 19, 2006 at 11:07PM

Dude! where the red fern grows. My personal favorite!

JayJan 20, 2006 at 12:12AM

On smell, two books, one fiction (Perfume:The Story of a Murderer) and one non-fiction (The Emperor of Scent). You’d love both, but the non-fiction on is a read that kottke.org readers would especially enjoy.

JayJan 20, 2006 at 12:15AM

Oops. Looks like someone already mentioned ‘The Emperor of Scent’

I too can’t recommend it enough.

smjamesJan 20, 2006 at 1:05AM

If you like 1984, you must read Eugene Zamiatin’s We. There is no direct evidence to support it, but 1984 must have been influenced by We, which was published almost 30 years prior to 1984.

MarkJan 20, 2006 at 8:56AM

Re-reads are so personally chosen. You might read a book the first time because it was recommended, or well-reviewed, or suddenly notorious for very accidental reasons.

But to re-read one: completely of your own choosing. Like Matt, I recommend the 2nd or 3rd read be with a companion, if there’s a good one available. 3rd time through Gravity’s Rainbow, with Weisenberger’s (sp?) companion, and at least I got some of the references. I imagine re-reading Infinite Jest with a guide would be the same way.

j.vanpeltJan 20, 2006 at 11:15AM

Re-reading Infinite Jest would be a good idea when your book list is low. There are so many details in it that, like Gravity’s Rainbow, which I’ve read twice, you’re going to get more and more out of it every time.

I honestly finish every book with the expectation that I will read it again, excepting only books that i don’t like and perhaps Don Quixote because somehow i think with that one once is enough.

Maybe because we’re on the topic of re-reads no one has mentioned Proust, but it’s hard to consider the idea of finishing all 8 volumes (vol. 3 is in the queue!), without going back to Swann’s Way first. Such a good book!

chewybrainJan 20, 2006 at 11:17AM

I could only read Where the Red Fern Grows once, when I was in the seventh grade.

I was on the school bus and reading the denouement, those last few pages when the heartstrings have been pulled so taut as to snap them and the author begins to pluck them a staccato, when another boy began to harrass me. In my fragile state I lashed out with the hand that was holding the book, and he tore out the last page, not on purpose, but not without purpose.

After the scuffle I was able to retrieve the page and got off the bus. Some may have seen me standing at the side of the road, roughed up and sobbing, trying to match up the puzzle pieces and give my mind the peace of resolution to a traumatic story.

jennifer cJan 20, 2006 at 1:45PM

Holy smokes. I am so happy to not be alone. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was also my favorite as a youngin’, but not one of my friends (and I mean none, excepting mi hermano) had ever heard of it before. This was quite disappointing to me.

It’s still a favorite, even though they all think I’m crazy for it.

“A book where giant food rains from the sky, scourging a town named Chewandswallow? Sheer lunacy,” they exclaim.

“Hogwash,” I retort.

Now I know I am no longer alone.

ChrisAJan 22, 2006 at 3:11AM

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson is a “once-a-year” read for me. I’ve read all his books, including the recent Baroque Cycle series and they’re all good. Cryptonomicon just can’t be beaten, yet…

RonaldJan 22, 2006 at 5:13AM

Dear Jason Kottke,
I would suggest The Five Senses by Frank Gonzalez-Crussi, formerly Head of Laboratories at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hostpital and Professor of Pathology at Northwestern Medical School.

Warm regards,

Ronald van Tienhoven


This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.