On Living, Reading without a Sense of Smell

Rebecca Steinitz is anosmic: she is unable to discern various smells. In a beautiful essay published in The Millions, she writes:

I don’t know what my husband’s shirt smells like. If he died, I wouldn’t think to sleep in it so I could feel that he was with me.
I don’t know what a baby’s head smells like – not my babies, not anyone else’s babies. I couldn’t pick my babies out of a crowd with my eyes closed, and I don’t miss that baby smell when I hug my growing children.
I don’t know the smell of feet, chalk, lilacs, gardenias, sour milk, rain, new cars, Chanel No. 5, Old Spice, greasepaint, or napalm.

I learned smells from books, which made me think they were fictional. I believed that Wilbur’s barn smelled of hay, manure, the perspiration of tired horses, and the sweet breath of patient cows, and that the salty brown smell of frying ham made Almanzo even hungrier. But when real people said That stinks, or I can smell the sea from here, or I can’t stand the smell of cilantro, I thought they were faking. I assumed that, like me, they knew from books that there were smells and things were supposed to have them. Unlike me, I decided, they were willing to pretend those smells existed beyond the page. As I try to write out this logic, it seems tortuous, but it wasn’t something I ever questioned; it was something I knew. I could not smell the things I read in books, so it was impossible that anyone else could, which meant they must be making it up.

She wonders:

Are my memories lesser for lack of olfactory reminders? Does the diminution of my fifth sense altogether diminish my ability to engage with the sensory realm?

The way Rebecca ties it back to books at the of the essay is magical. Highly recommend reading.


(hat tip: Steve Silberman)

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