Book: A Natural History of the Senses

A Natural History of the Senses
Diane Ackerman
1990 (Vintage/Random House)

General knowledge is that we as humans experience the world through five distinct senses – hearing, smell, touch, taste and sight. Ackerman explores each of these senses in her book in varying eclectic ways. She discusses historical, biological, psychological, artistic and any number of other aspects of our sensory experiences. Often she touches on how these five senses overlap and what happens when one or more of them are absent.

This book is full of evocative images and intriguing ideas, but it has very little real focus. Ackerman seems to have a near-unending supply of references and quotes, but she flits from one to another like a butterfly giving the reader little time to really focus on anything. The result is an utterly fascinating collection of facts brought together in a way that is at the same time seemingly organized and infuriatingly without direction. Portions of this book I really enjoyed reading, but I constantly felt like I was being rushed on to the next idea while the previous one was all but forgotten! It was rather frustrating.

I really wanted to love this book and I did find it really interesting – but not as a whole. The truth is that it doesn’t work as a whole, it’s just a collection of disparate pieces fitted together with a tenuous theme. The theme would have worked if it hadn’t been so obvious that portions of the book were pulled from elsewhere and had not been written with the theme in mind while other portions were written simply to complete the thematic picture, but that the author found them wholly uninteresting. It’s never a good sign when you can tell that the author was bored writing something.

I would recommend this book as something read in little pieces, like a bathroom reader. It just doesn’t hold up as a book when read straight through as is. There’s so much interesting stuff here, but it just doesn’t hold together that well, which is really a shame.

- Publisher’s Description

- Diane Ackerman’s Website

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