A Natural History of the Senses

by Diane Ackerman

Paperback, 1991

Call number




Vintage (1991), 352 pages


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

User reviews

LibraryThing member Laura400
I never like to give a bad review. It seems mean to the author and to those who like the book. However, in this case, someone should, just for balance.

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.
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LibraryThing member jrapala
This book is my bible. I've read it a number of times and plan to read it again, and again, and again.

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.
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LibraryThing member csmirl
Ackerman writes a number of books that accomplish the feat of quality, entertaining writing about science without making it seem like science. Which, I suppose, is simply saying that she brings science to the pleasure readers.She has a poet’s ear for sentences, and she writes like a teacher. Her descriptions are beautiful and interesting, and she read several hundred books for every one title she writes. There is so very much information packed in that great language. Science very quickly turns me off, but this book fascinated me. I couldn’t put it down.… (more)
LibraryThing member AprilBrown

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!
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LibraryThing member dypaloh
In A Natural History of the Senses Diane Ackerman has produced a densely populated compendium of scientific, artistic, and emotional details related to smell, touch, taste, sound, sight, and synesthesia. She doesn’t occupy herself with any one aspect of each sense for long, always moving on, wanting not to deprive you of anything she knows. If the devil is in the details then there’s much deviltry in her book.

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.
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LibraryThing member mykl-s
A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman (1991)
LibraryThing member drsyko
This is a gorgeous, sumptuous feast of a book. Beautifully written and well researched, this book takes you on a tour of the senses and why they are so important. Ackerman is able to put into words so many things that are hard to describe, and does so with a lushness that is just lovely. If you are a sensualist at all, you will love this book. Fascinating and poetic, it's a great read.… (more)
LibraryThing member saskreader
An enjoyable and luxurious read, a palatable offering to be savoured slowly.
LibraryThing member gibbon
Written with a poet's sensiitivity to language, this is a beguiling compound of scientific knowledge with literary and historical quotation concerning the five traditional senses. These are followed by chapters on synaesthesia and on tricks used by writers to stimulate their creativity. Wherever you dip into this extraordinary compendium you are sure to find a pearl - and without having to prise open the oyster. The suggested further reading alone could occupy a lifetime.… (more)
LibraryThing member Cecilturtle
A fabulous look at all the senses, with anecdotes, bio facts and neat stories; sometimes overly poetic passages but generally fascinating
LibraryThing member Cygnus555
Poetic review of the senses and the science surrounding them. Quite enjoyable for those who are scientificly minded, yet artistically driven.
LibraryThing member woodge
Loved this book, it was fascinating.
LibraryThing member centime
If I had to keep only one non-fiction book out of my whole collection, this would be the one. Ms. Ackerman writes beautifully, leaving you hungry for more. She has a fantastic way of interweaving fact, poetry, anecdote, and humor. I read it way too fast, and had to go back for more.
LibraryThing member keylawk
Smell, Touch, Taste, Hearing, Vision, Synesthesia.

But she concludes by pointing further, beyond the point where senses can lead us.
LibraryThing member michaelgambill
Such pretentious and overwrought writing. I'm not sure what all the fuss is about.
LibraryThing member kencf0618
Sense and senseability finely wrought.
LibraryThing member bnbookgirl
The section about smell is by far my favorite. It was so interesting and it seemed so much less textbooky than the other chapters. The Painter's Eye was also a great chapter; so many intriguing informational tidbits. Overall, not a bad read.
LibraryThing member sonyaseattle
A well-written book that lets you sample the delights of all the senses. It's a good one to pick up and open randomly to a chapter, even after you've read the whole thing.
LibraryThing member Marse
An OK book. People seem to love it, it wasn't particularly memorable for me.
LibraryThing member Moriquen
This was a very difficult book for me to read. And I must be honest and say that I haven't even finished it completely. For one thing I'm not used to reading non-fiction. I have found it very difficult to keep going in it or to even start in it. I need a story to pull it all together, because right now it has been lying on my cupboard for over a week and I haven't touched it.
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!
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