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A Natural History of the Senses

4.16 of 5 stars 4.16  ·  rating details  ·  4,942 ratings  ·  517 reviews
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 ...more
ebook, 352 pages
Published December 7th 2011 by Vintage (first published 1990)
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Jul 23, 2007 Kay rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  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
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
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
Often overwhelmed by visual stimuli-- misses little.

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

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).

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

Will often be moved to tears, or conversely, thrown into j
Jul 27, 2007 Nicole rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  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.
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
Joanne Harris
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
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
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.
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.
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...
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
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
David B
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
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
Anna Banana
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
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
Tags Taggart
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.
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
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
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
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
this one had me going for a while, but i got exhausted with ackerman's far-reaching metaphors and frequent digressions. they always say digression in nonfiction is good, it allows the reader to make a deeper connection; it was intriguing at the beginning of this book but i reached the penultimate chapter, on vision, and she's hardly expounding on vision at all--just describing one fantastic sight after another, and that only does half the job in achieving her goal of exploring the senses. so, on ...more
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
Fascinating and wide ranging. I love these rambling, train-of-thought explorations of topics, so this book literally* reached out and grabbed me by the wrist when I came accross it in a used book store attached to a reclaimed building materials store in Charlotte, NC.

Diane Ackerman runs through the senses one by one, from smell to vision, with illuminations from science, myth, literature and more. Both the world we percieve with our senses and the workings of those senses are under analysis here
A mere collection of facts. A romantic's Uncle John's Bathroom Reader.
Sep 18, 2007 lisa_emily rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: ackerman fans
Shelves: pop-non-fic
Although all te essays were interesting on their own, sometimes they extended the theme a little farther than what I wanted to read. I really wanted to focus on the senses and to read a more scientific perspective. The essays therein were more fluid than that.

I've read other Ackerman books and have enjoyed them thoroughly. I think it is best, however, to approach Ackerman with no agenda. At times, I would get a little frustrated with some of the essays; "what does sky have to do with sight?" I f
Off The Shelf
Off the Shelf writer Meg Miller reviewed A Natural History of the Senses on

Ode de Parfum: A Natural History of the Senses by Meg Miller

One of my most recounted stories comes from Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses. Whenever anyone mentions anything about a keen sense of smell, a perfume, or a familiar fragrance, I immediately launch into a diatribe describing the one thing I know about the fragrance industry. “Have you heard of IFF?” I begin.

Located in New York Ci
Carol Wrenn
Cover your eyes and you will stop seeing, cover your ears and you will stop hearing, but if you cover your nose and try to stop smelling, you will die. inability to smell or taste (the two senses are physically related.)

The men of the ancient world were clean and scented. European men of the Dark Ages were unclean and unscented. Those of medieval times, and of modern times up to about the end of the 17th century, were dirty and scented.....Nineteenth-century men were clean and unsce
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500 Great Books B...: A Natural History of the Senses - Diane Ackerman 1 5 Jul 27, 2014 01:30PM  
  • About This Life
  • The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession
  • Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume
  • The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World
  • What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life
  • The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live & Why They Matter
  • Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place
  • Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony
  • The Solace of Open Spaces
  • Practice of the Wild
  • Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds
  • Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature
  • Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey--The Sweet Liquid Gold that Seduced the World
  • The Immense Journey: An Imaginative Naturalist Explores the Mysteries of Man and Nature
  • Woman: An Intimate Geography
  • The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell
  • The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky
  • Annals of the Former World
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...
The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story A Natural History of Love An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain One Hundred Names for Love: A Memoir The Moon by Whale Light and Other Adventures Among Bats, Penguins, Crocodilians and Whales

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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.” 63 likes
“It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.” 44 likes
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