Diane Ackerman's lusciously written grand tour of the realm of the senses includes conversations with an iceberg in Antarctica and a professional nose in New York, along with dissertations on kisses and tattoos, sadistic cuisine and the music played by the planet Earth. "Delightful . . . gives the reader the richest possible feeling of the worlds the senses take in." --The New York Times
This book was just a painful slog for me. If a friend hadn't recommended it so highly, I would have blessedly abandoned it. I finished it, finally, but found no there there. Reading it was like being stuck for weeks -- perhaps on a cruise to the Antarctic or at a summer job on a New Mexican ranch -- with a self-indulgent, self-centered 18-year-old girl who likes to recite why she was voted most likely to succeed and editor of the literary magazine at her competitive suburban high school.
Ackerman slathers purple prose alternately over strings of quotations dug up from better writers on the five senses, and -- and this is much worse -- pretentious personal anecdotes like her cruise to the Antarctic or her job on a "working cattle ranch" in New Mexico.
Her mode of nature writing, or science writing, or whatever this book purports to be, is to make an assertion that she attributes to "us," and then to puncture this alleged trope with recitations from a high school science textbook. Yes, the sky is not really blue, it just looks blue. This is not actually a revelation for most educated people.
Her language is overwrought. Her demonstrations of alleged poetic sensibility are transparent pleas for admiration. Her attempts on nearly every page to show herself as an epicurean of everything -- kissing! cold water! -- would embarrass anyone with a modicum of modesty or perspective, much less the actual Epicurius.
I wanted to give it one star, but I am reserving that for, I don't know, a fascist text, should I ever be forced to read one. So, two stars, in honor of the ten or so pages I found actually interesting. They were about other people, of course, that being artists with vision problems.
TLDR? Not quick. Not enjoyable. Not illuminating. Not worth it.
Ackerman sums up her intention for this book wonderfully in her introduction--
"To begin to understand the gorgeous fever that is consciousness, we must try to understand the senses--how they evolved, how they can be extended, what their limits are, to which one we have attached taboos, and what they can teach us about the ravishing world we have the privilege to inhabit."
We are connected to the world around us through our senses. The more aware we are of this connection, the better our appreciation of our world. Awareness improves our focus on our senses and teaches us how to better utilize them. Ackerman improves our awareness by exploring each sense from both biological and historical aspects. Ackerman's use of language infuses poetry into these analyses, likened to the experience of exploring an environment.
Your food will taste better and the air will smell sweeter after reading this book. We seem to take our senses for granted when in fact they are one of the keys to happiness and love for life. If anything, this book should be in the self-help section.
Take a deep breath and taste each molecule you take in. The world is a beautiful place.
What ages would I recommend it too? – Twelve and up.
Length? – Several day's read.
Characters? – The senses.
Setting? – Real world.
Written approximately? – 1990.
Does the story leave questions in the readers mind? – Ready to read more.
Any issues the author (or a more recent publisher) should cover? No
Notes for the reader: A fascinating journey through the history and present of how the senses are intertwined in our daily lives. Gives a few good examples to writers, along with many stories that are just plain fun, and funny to read!
There’s also, to my surprise, much that pleases. The first time I tried the book I had put it aside, unwilling to sit with it any longer, resorting finally to reading random pages until the desire to do even that died. Its feasts of “sensuist” experiences seemed so much excess, the act of reading it work providing little that inspired. I’d think: I’d be exhausted if my senses, any of them, were keyed up as much as all of Diane Ackerman’s are seemingly all of the time. She speaks of the SHOCKING green of chlorophyll. Shocking?
And yet now, coming to the book again a quarter century later, it’s all so much more impressive. I even found her provoking me to make small resolutions. Examples of notes to self:
—She is moved to tears by Eucalyptus smells . . . We have plenty of these trees around here. Find a few, stick my nose near or against them, and see what happens.
—She hears the sound of waves breaking on the beach in a way others do not . . . I live near the ocean. Head on over there and do as she instructs: press ear against sand and listen.
Yep. I’ve come to my senses. A Natural History of the Senses inspires.
But she concludes by pointing further, beyond the point where senses can lead us.
That being said it isn't badly written at all, I liked the way she described the different senses and how she managed to conjure up images from childhood. (Or other times.) Many of the little facts are interesting and I have read a couple to my partner. But in the end that is what the book is to me. A collection of well told facts. And I've found it too factual to get into, if you catch my drift ... In my eyes this would be perfect for a fact-a-day-calendar, but not a book. Non-fiction books turn out to be not my cup of tea at all!