Reading with Your Ears, Nose, and Fingers

Recently cleaning out our childhood home, my family uncovered lots of treasures. We sold off most in a tag sale, which was dominated by tables and tables of books. But some books I held on to—especially the well-worn ones my brother and I had most enjoyed. What struck me as I flipped the pages of these long-forgotten stories was that my brother and I experienced them in different ways. He is blind, so he never read the words or soaked in the pictures like I did. He used senses other than sight to absorb stories—and to navigate the world.

Smell: This sense let my brother know what was for dinner, when the fireplace was lit, or when my dad mowed the lawn. Seasons for him weren’t about the change of colors, but of scents. One of our favorite childhood games was lining up spice jars and guessing at what was inside. So it’s no surprise that Golden Book’s Golden Fragrance Books were our favorites. This series, popular in the 1970s, had patches every other page or so that you could scratch and sniff scents that went along with the story, like pizza, shampoo, roses, licorice, and mint. Even better, the stories themselves, such as Detective Arthur on the Scent by Mary J. Fulton and A Nose for Trouble by Barbara Shook Hazen, were often about characters who used their sense of smell to solve the story’s problem.

Sound: As a kid, my brother carried around a tape recorder and mischievously recorded messages to himself, other people’s conversations, and silly sound effects. Some of his favorite books were about sound: Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? by Dr. Seuss and The Noisy Book by Margaret Wise Brown. But he also listened to lots of books on his “talking book machine” (record player). I loved to listen, too, and enjoyed the luxury of imagining my own pictures. If a book wasn’t available on record or tape, my parents made story tapes for him. One of our house-cleaning discoveries was a birthday tape they had made him more than forty years ago on which my father read Andy and the Lion by James Daugherty, and my mother Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey.

Touch: This is probably my brother’s most vital way of experiencing the world—and books. Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt was a family favorite with its tactile pages and interactive text. My brother was also able to read words with his fingertips thanks to the brilliant system of Braille: six raised dots in numerous combinations that make up the whole alphabet. My father even constructed deep shelves to accommodate my brother’s many oversized Braille books. I learned Braille by sight, but never could read it with my fingers. I was always a little jealous that he could read in the dark and I couldn’t.

Everyone has different ways of experiencing books, although for most of us, it is through sight. All of my book discoveries when cleaning out the house reminded me that I should appreciate all of my senses as I read, write, and navigate the world.

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