“A Natural History of the Senses” by Diane Ackerman

A Natural History of the SensesTitle: A Natural History of the Senses
Author: Diane Ackerman
ISBN: 9780679735663
Pages: 352
Release date: September 10, 1991
Publisher: Vintage
Genre: Narrative nonfiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 2 out of 5

TL;DR: A sensuous exploration of how humans experience the world around us.

A Natural History of the Senses is a difficult book to describe. It is one woman’s categorization of how our senses make us human–and how we use our senses to interact with the world. It has no narrative, no arc, no main character (other than the author, discussed below). Her prose is, as you might expect in a book about senses, sensuous and extravagant, with long sentences and lavish images:

  • “Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines” (p. 5)
  • “What could be more distressing than to be sorely afflicted by an absence without a name?” (p. 41)
  • “Consciousness, the great poem of matter, seems so unlikely, so impossible, and yet here we are with our loneliness and our giant dreams” (p. 130)

When she’s able to limit the sheer expressiveness of her prose, and offer real observations that get at the intensely human act of sensing the natural world, she does a fantastic job. But too much of the book is cluttered with elaborate sentences and belabored descriptions to enjoy these brief moments of respite. Her clauses stretch on like dishes at a Roman feast, one after the other, sights and scents wafting up:

But the skin is also alive, breathing and excreting, shielding us from harmful rays and microbial attack, metabolizing vitamin D, insulating us from heat and cold, repairing itself when necessary, regulating blood flow, acting as a frame for our sense of touch, aiding us in sexual attraction, defining our individuality, holding all the thick red jams and jellies inside us where they belong.

This sentence is working hard to convey a lot of information about what the skin does. It’s one of the more informative parts of the chapter. Yet it’s also poetic in its parallel construction, with sumptuous phrases like “thick red jams and jellies.” Sentences like these work for me–but when they appear one after another, a jumble of senses and impressions, it all becomes so overwhelming. Each word, each sentence, each paragraph–they all work overtime to convey the senses.

This wild extravagance works well in an essay, but not in a book. I found myself putting the book down every page or two because it was far too overwhelming. Each page felt like stepping into a florist’s shop. Individually, the sentences are beautiful, like individual flowers or bouquets. But taken all together, all in the same book (or shop, to continue the simile), the sensations are unpleasantly overwhelming.

As an author, Ackerman permeates every page. She writes in the first person, particularly the first person plural “we.” But it is clear that Ackerman filters all of these experiences through herself, not through the experiences of the collective of which she writes. She only relates a handful of interviews and stories about others, and all of those involve her in some way—she is interviewing a perfumer, or she is asking her poet friends about their writing rituals. In this book, we are seeing the world through one woman’s eyes. Ackerman presents herself, either indirectly, as a stand-in for the human race. And it’s here that things get murky.

There are some truths that are universal, and a good writer seeks to explain and present them. But often, Ackerman goes too far with her sweeping generalizations. Her insights and examples are not nearly as universal as she seems to think. Much of the time, I disagreed with her interpretations of the senses. On page 29, we are told that “‘baby blues’ remind us a little of Caucasian newborns, and fill us with protectiveness.” Not me; I have held many (Caucasian and not) newborns in my life, and their eye color has little to do with my protectiveness or lack thereof. Nor do I gaze into my husband’s blue eyes and think of all the babies I’d like to cuddle. It seems like a small point, but this feeling of being mischaracterized by “we” happened over and over again. When an author writes in the plural collective, she should be sure that most of her readers will agree—that the truths she is sharing are universal. Too often, these “truths” seem to be Ackerman’s opinions and observations.

Sometimes, of course, she is successful as our stand-in. On page 130, she writes: “Consciousness, the great poem of matter, seems so unlikely, so impossible, and yet here we are with our loneliness and our giant dreams.” This is an excellent example of the plural collective working well to reveal a universal truth. On page 230, she points out that “for us the world becomes most densely informative, most luscious, when we take it in through our eyes.” Much like her elaborate prose, it works in small doses. But she frequently goes overboard.

As a writer, I’m wary of making general, sweeping statements without having research* to back it up. I could still make points deriving from personal experiences, of course; but I would be sure to show that it’s my opinion, not fact. Only in the postscript does she acknowledge, in a single paragraph, that some people experience the senses differently.

“We come into this world with only the slender word ‘I,’ and giving it up in a sacred delirium is the painful ecstasy religions demand,” Ackerman writes on p. 101. I wish, in this book, she’d held on to that “I” a little more—while also questioning the ways she was using it.

*One of my other beefs with this book: There are no endnotes! Often, she vaguely references research or a book–sometimes, she copies entire paragraphs of another writer’s work–without full credit. This was incredibly frustrating. I would like to have sources for statements that seem out of date, or math that seems incorrect. (On page 69, she says that 6 pounds of skin equals 16 percent of our body weight? I’m no supermodel, but 6 pounds of skin is more like 4 percent of my body weight.)

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy A Natural History of the Senses for yourself from an independent bookstore. Each sale from this link helps support Melody & Words.

2 replies »

  1. I really loved this one when I read it in college.

    I definitely agree that she can be meandering, and that bit at the end about the lack of endnotes is something I hadn’t noticed before. She certainly doesn’t speak for everyone, but allowing myself to be absorbed into her “we” was oddly comforting to me.

    Sorry this didn’t work more for you!


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