A Natural History of the Senses

by Diane Ackerman

ages: adult
First sentence: “Nothing is more memorable than a smell.”
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Going into this book, I didn’t quite know what I’d be getting from a “natural history” of the senses. It’s such a broad term; and how does one actually provide a history of something that’s been part of the human experience since the beginning of time?

What I got was one part history, one part science, and one part poetry. Ackerman divided the book into five sections, one for each of the senses. She started with smell, then worked through touch, taste, hearing and vision. I had a hard time at first, getting used to the style of the book, which seemed haphazard and disorganized. It seemed like it was a series of short essays cobbled together without much sense and flow. But, after the smell section — which was the worst for the disjointedness — it settled into a rhythm, a little bit of poetic description, a bit of science (most of which I wondered if still was “correct”, since the book was written in 1990), a bit of social history. Much of it was fascinating. Her descriptions (passages of which I would love to copy down, but are much, much too long), especially about how the senses work in relationships, were elegant and poetic. But, in the end, it wasn’t enough. I wanted something less thrown together, something that flowed more, something that was less disjointed.

Because when it was good, it was very good. I just wanted more goodness.

2 thoughts on “A Natural History of the Senses

  1. For whatever reason, I just always appreciated her “natural history” books for what they offered and didn't find them lacking. I read this one a long time ago, though, I might be pickier now 🙂


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