on The New Yorker:
Shaped by the idiosyncrasies of memory, our experience of the olfactory world may be more private than we think.
My obsession with perfume began when I was around ten years old, spritzing on layer after layer of my mother’s Anaïs Anaïs and Poison, until I reeked of a duty-free store. It continued through my mall-rat teen-age years, when I blew through my babysitting tips at Bath & Body Works, convinced that I could amplify my personality with a generous dose of Sun-Ripened Raspberry. Throughout my twenties, I collected hundreds of fragrance samples, bought for less than five dollars apiece from Web sites with names like the Perfumed Court and Surrender to Chance. Tiny glass vials of liquid tuberose regularly spilled out of my coat pockets. So when an editor at a newspaper for which I occasionally wrote about hair and beauty trends asked me if I had anything to say about perfume, I told her I did. I assumed that the main requisite for the task was personal experience, not technical expertise; surely I already had the vocabulary for detailing the scentscapes I’d been wandering for years. I knew I loved the smell of violets—their chalky, chocolate undertones. Or I thought I knew. Sitting down at my keyboard, I began to waver. Was it more like talcum powder and linden honey? Or like a Barbie-doll head sprinkled with lemonade?
Talking about smells can feel a little like talking about dreams—often tedious, rarely satisfying. The olfactory world is more private than we may think: even when we share space, such as a particularly ripe subway car, one commuter may describe eau d’armpit as sweet Gorgonzola cheese, another will detect rotting pumpkin, and a third a barnyardy, cayenne tang. What surprised me is that using phrases like “barnyardy, cayenne tang” is a perfectly valid, even preferred, way to write about nasal experiences. Many of the most seasoned perfume critics incline toward the rhapsodic, as do the would-be critics who gather on the Internet to wax eloquent about the things they’ve smelled. One of my favorite hubs for odor aficionados, the Web site Fragrantica, an online “perfume encyclopedia” that launched in 2007, has the feel of a cacophonous bazaar: on its message boards, users swap perfumed prose back and forth, racking up hundreds of new posts each day.