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A Natural History of the Senses

4.16  ·  Rating Details ·  5,528 Ratings  ·  569 Reviews
A young poet, pilot, naturalist, and New Yorker writer offers a beautifully written book about the world of the human senses, in the style of John McPhee and Lewis Thomas.
Hardcover, 331 pages
Published June 2nd 1990 by Random House Inc (T) (first published 1990)
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Kay
Jul 23, 2007 Kay rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone!
Over a decade ago I picked up a book that changed my life. It was Diane Ackerman's "A Natural History of the Senses", and her humanist, holistic, sensitive approach to that most basic of subjects; how we sense the world, was a revelation. Her writing was inclusive and funny, at once deep and yet accessible. She loved to explore complex issues like the olfactory system, or the sounding of whales, and to take the reader along on that exploration. Science was no longer dry and I was no longer exclu ...more
Erin
Jan 11, 2009 Erin rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This book was really hard to get through. The only reason I even finished it is that she did include a few really interesting facts about the senses. But her writing style is torturous!!!!! She writes in this really flowery style with way too many metaphors and adjectives that don't even make sense! Here's one: "Craving the dialect of cities, I forgot the way deer steal into the yard with their big hearts and fragile dreams". What??? There's no context for this and it doesn't make any sense. Thi ...more
Thomas
Oct 12, 2015 Thomas rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Touch me, taste me. Hear me, smell me, see me. Our senses form our most intimate connections. Even using them in writing evokes a sense of nearness, of vulnerability. In her book A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman explores each of our senses with rich, resplendent prose. Reading this increased my awareness of the physical sensations within and around me in a thorough and authentic way, so I would recommend it to any aspiring writer or anyone interested in mindfulness.

Not only does A
...more
Jessica
Mar 19, 2008 Jessica rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Well, the title is quite misleading. Each chapter (Smell, Touch, Taste, Hearing, Vision, and Synesthesia) seems to be a loose assemblage of thoughts, often only tenuously tied to the sense supposedly being discussed. For example, I'm still trying to figure out why she wrote about quicksand in the hearing chapter. In the Synesthesia chapter, she starts a section by talking about some writers who had synesthesia, but then it devolves into pages and pages of quirks writers had (who liked to write s ...more
Gloria
Jan 08, 2011 Gloria rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Often overwhelmed by visual stimuli-- misses little.
Check.

Can be instantly transported to a different time or place by a smell alone.
Check.

Has been known to savor food, slowly, one bite at a time (or to indulge in a stolen bite of a decadent chocolate brownie at 2 a.m., letting the darkness intensify the flavor).
Check.

Possesses a nearly incontrollable urge to touch-- smooth metal, jagged rock, velvety leaf or grass, cool marble.
Check.

Will often be moved to tears, or conversely, thrown into j
...more
Nicole
Jul 27, 2007 Nicole rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone
I was given this book as a high school graduation present from two retired high school teachers and it proved to be one of my all time favorites. It should be required reading for any human being. You will learn fascinating things like that we can identify only 10,000 different tastes and anything else you've ever wanted to know about your senses. It's fascinating and mind blowing.
Dee
Mar 17, 2015 Dee rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Crammed with interesting tidbits and historical curiosities. Full of sensual descriptions and fascinating factoids. Did you know tattooed people live shorter lives because their skin can't breathe properly? That in business meetings, studies found that the person of higher status most often initiates a touch? This exploration of the five senses is a fascinating read.

But, unfortunately, it's quite choppy and too often reads like a laundry list of trivia with no proper transitions or general point
...more
Joanne Harris
Apr 03, 2015 Joanne Harris rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A marvellous and unique insight into the sensual world, this is at the same time beautifully-written and immensely evocative. We take our senses so much for granted - and in literature, we often use them in such a limited, unimaginative capacity. This book serves as a reminder that each of our senses has its own very personal narrative; that memories and emotions are linked to specific physical triggers; and that by exploring these, we can become so much more aware of ourselves and of our surrou ...more
Erica Bauermeister
This book was my favorite research source when I was writing The School of Essential Ingredients. Diane Ackerman manages to make science poetic, and her metaphors can be astonishing. Such lush, playful descriptions -- whenever I needed to get back in the writing mood, I would read bits of it and feel my senses waking up.
Mmars
May 20, 2012 Mmars rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Occasionally a book comes along that becomes a personal standard by which everything comparable is judged. Such is Ackerman's "Natural History of the Senses" for me. Every little natural thing becomes an object of interest with a story to tell. I have often wanted to sit with my feet up, at dusk, in a screened in porch, with Diane Ackerman by my side. She would, I am sure, sit quietly and observe, but when she did say something it would be extremely fascinating.
Lynne King
Initially this was a wonderful book and then I lost interest in it. It's charm disappeared into nothing...It became very repetitive.
Sarah Canavan
The more I read of this book, the more I wanted it to be over. I enjoyed the small tidbits of information and etymology facts dispersed far and too few between her grandiose anecdotes but I really couldn't get over how proud of herself Ackerman seems to be. It was just exhausting hearing about all the wonderful sensory experiences she's had. I get it. I've had my own, even if they weren't while exploring Antarctica or vacationing in the exotic middle-east as a college student. Uhg.



She didn't re
...more
Greta Fisher
A wonderful little book that make me happy to be alive... so I can watch sunflowers against the black sky of a coming storm, buy Diorissimo because of many childhood bouquets of Lily of the Valley, stroke the shaggy, shiny fur of a sleepy cat, listen to Turandot and feel as if I'm floating, dive down in a deep clear spring, remember what it felt like to hold our strong, happy toddler after his evening bath, watching flowers and peaches begin to glow just as the late afternoon light hits them...
Kate Conroy
Feb 08, 2016 Kate Conroy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was given to me as a graduation present from my high school art teacher–only he didn’t actually get around to giving it to me until probably about a year ago, and I graduated high school in 2012. I read this while in treatment, mostly at 3:15 AM, which was when I had to wake up to get weighed and get my blood pressure and heart rate checked, which was always atrocious, so then I had to sit and drink a Gatorade while the nurses watched to make sure I didn’t pour it into the flower pots ...more
Stephen
Jun 22, 2009 Stephen rated it it was amazing
I guess it helps if you have a crush on the author of the book you are reading. What can I say? It happens. But smitten or not, this was a delight.

The first two books I reported on by poet turned naturalist Diane Ackerman chronicled her adventures in pursuit of rare and wonderful wildlife: bats, whales, penguins, etc.

In “A Natural History of the Senses” she turned inward, exploring we humans and the way we experience our world.

“We tend to see distant past through a reverse telescope that compr
...more
Ammie
May 05, 2010 Ammie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Here's what Barbara Kingsolver has to say about Diane Ackerman: "[She:] begins each summer day 'by choosing and arranging flowers for a Zenlike hour or so.' She listens to music obsessively, then speed-walks for an hour, every single day. 'I don't know whether this helps or not,' she allows... 'My muse is male, has the radiant, silvery complexion of the moon, and never speaks to me directly.'"

Please read that last line again. A lot of this book sounds like that, although usually it's not quite s
...more
David B
Dec 14, 2014 David B rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It is no surprise that author Diane Ackerman has also written several books of poetry. Her poet's sensibility is certainly put to good use here. She uses beautiful, evocative prose to consummate what is clearly a long-standing love affair with the five senses. Although this book is well-reasoned and researched, including much fascinating information about how the senses operate, this is not really a rigorously scientific book. Rather, it is a collection of essays that often have little apparent ...more
Anna Banana
Feb 25, 2009 Anna Banana rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
At once history, biology, and anthropology this book explores the 5 senses from a variety of perspectives. Ackerman writes with intense imagery that can be beautiful or brutal. Memorable indeed was a discussion of the cultural evolution of flavor, complete with a medieval recipe for cooking a LIVE goose. I loved her discussion of how smell is the sense most closely linked to memory (which explains why sometimes, washing my hands in public bathrooms, I get instantly transported back to kindergart ...more
Tags Taggart
Jun 25, 2008 Tags Taggart rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a fascinating meander through the five senses. Ackerman's writing is so precise and lively, I picked up some fab new words from her, and was grossed out on the cannibalism specifics in the taste section. There isn't a lot of structure to pull you through this, but all of it is riveting and quirky. I think I see some seeds for "The Omnivore's Dilemma" in the taste section too.
Janet
Feb 25, 2009 Janet rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A staple of the writer's reference shelf. As long as the human being exists in the body, the writer needs to consider the senses.
Bernadette
Sep 14, 2009 Bernadette rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
It took me a very long time to finish this book. I wanted to like it much more than I actually did. I've loved Ackerman's poetry and I really enjoyed The Zookeeper's Wife, a work of historical fiction by her. But A Natural History of the Senses, as a work of nonfiction, comes across as being completely without structure, except for being divided into sections according to each "sense." Each section holds dozens of brief (2-5 page) sub-sections tangentially related to that sense. Some of the teth ...more
Valerie
I really couldn't make my way through this. I may have another go some day, but it's one of the things I keep putting off.

For one thing, I've never really accepted the canonical notion of 'five senses'. I kept waiting for discussion of the other senses. Where are the discussions of (for example) the barometric sense?

For that matter, what about people with sensitivity outside the norm in the 'standard' five senses? Whenever I see people on news shows saying they can't assess the damage in storms
...more
Alicia
AH-MAZING and mind-blowing and I need to read this about fifteen more times to suck as much information as I can out of it! This book is so well-researched and clearly defined, with just slight deviations (but somehow connected) to each of the chapters that I was just as blown away by the unfolding 'story' as with what she packed into 300-page scientific exploration. It was a more fully-involved experience than Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life only in that his tangents were more ...more
Eva
Feb 14, 2015 Eva rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This book was a disappointment. I expected a decently written, informative book on the history of human senses, and instead got a strange mix of facts, myths and incredibly self-indulgent personal narrative that I couldn't bring myself to care for.

I understand the book is 25 years old so some theories will be inevitably outdated, but Ackerman mixes scientific theories with bits of randomly picked interesting trivia that she clearly didn't bother to critically examine and some wide-spread folk be
...more
Hannah Messler
Jun 05, 2016 Hannah Messler rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: june-2016
Ugh. This book is like if you are making fun of Literary Literariness to your friend and you pretend to talk like Eustace Tilley but instead of being a hilarious four seconds between pals it is three hundred pages of taking-itself-deadly-serious fussy snooty tone-deaf malarkey. SHEESH.

I was anticipating something informative & lyrical along the lines of Rats, but this was bonkers pretentious, thoroughly crippled by privilege, and horrifyingly self-indulgent to the point of bordering on satir
...more
Taka
Lavishly Written--

Although somewhat haphazard in its structure, this nonfiction, quasi-scientific book by the poet Diane Ackerman dazzles you with sensuous extravaganza.

Her prose indulges your senses with imagery, metaphors, and colorful descriptions that render sense data into poetic gems.

The only complaint I have is that she doesn't have any overarching theme or story. Some accounts are more interesting than others and still some bore you with its randomness.

When read as poetic expositions on
...more
ryn
Oct 10, 2016 ryn rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
a singularly saturated specimen of metaphoricall[iterat]ure, entirelessly enveloping, instructive in the art of loaded words.
Nathan
Aug 28, 2009 Nathan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Oops: I just left it in the airplane with a few pages left. Oh well.

My indifference to my loss says something. Ackerman's systematic attack of the senses is interesting and fact-filled, but ultimately not cohesive or exciting enough to keep me engaged.

She does a wonderful job of scattering random tidbits of history, scientific fact, literature references, language idioms, and famous quotations into a flood of the different ways we use our senses to perceive. Though some of these are fun and int
...more
Tim
A whirlwind though somewhat haphazard tour of the five traditional human sensory channels, along with an additional section on synesthesia and other modes of perception. Science, philosophy, folklore, literature, psychology – there are many different disciplines represented here.

This book was extremely dense in terms of data; it was not uncommon to find four or five different lines of inquiry/discovery on the same page. Trivia buffs and etymologists will especially enjoy this book. Having done
...more
Tara
Feb 19, 2008 Tara rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: unfinishable
I guess it's not really fair to say I read this book... I guess I read about 85% of this book. The book itself went through a series of accidents... It got rained on, snowed on, coffee spilled on it... ran over, went through the laundry... you should see it. It truly looks USED in the true sense of the word. Anyway, at first I was in love with the writing, I thought it was fascinating. But by the end I was kind of tired of Ackerman's flowy over the top language usage and it seemed like every "ch ...more
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500 Great Books B...: A Natural History of the Senses - Diane Ackerman 1 7 Jul 27, 2014 01:30PM  
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Diane Ackerman has been the finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction in addition to many other awards and recognitions for her work, which include the best-selling The Zookeeper’s Wife and A Natural History of the Senses. She lives with her husband Paul West in Ithaca, New York.
More about Diane Ackerman...

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“Look at your feet. You are standing in the sky. When we think of the sky, we tend to look up, but the sky actually begins at the earth. We walk through it, yell into it, rake leaves, wash the dog, and drive cars in it. We breathe it deep within us. With every breath, we inhale millions of molecules of sky, heat them briefly, and then exhale them back into the world.” 76 likes
“It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.” 57 likes
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