kottke.org posts about Diane Ackerman

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.