A Natural History of the Senses
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A Natural History of the Senses

4.16 of 5 stars 4.16  ·  rating details  ·  4,384 ratings  ·  470 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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Kay
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
Erin
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
Jessica
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
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 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.
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
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.
Mmars
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.
Stephen
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
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
Bernadette
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
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
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
Nathan
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
Tara
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
Nana
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
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
Keith
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...more
lisa_emily
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...more
Elizabeth
I remember her passages on smells and taste, Very evocative. Another one to jump into where the book falls open, not one i consumed from front to back. I enjoyed it tremendously and it awakened my perceptions for awhile, but lost interest in the middle of the Hearing section. My copy is well worn and appears to be soaked with water, oddly enough becoming a sensual document itself. Great reminder here. Maybe I'll pick it up again.
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.
Audra (Unabridged Chick)
This beautiful book explores the science behind our five senses in lush, sensual narrative. Ackerman is a poet and her lyrical abilities are seen in her writing: the reader experiences each sense with her. Apparently this is a companion book to a PBS series but it can be read without having seen the show. Highly recommended!
Angela
Terrible. Glib. Annoying. When I see her name on the byline of occasional NYT opinion pieces, I cringe. I hope I can one day give her a second chance!
Elizabeth Andrew
Lush. Fantastic. An enormous amount of information here, but it's explored from the vantage of an infinitely curious mind. This is my second reading, and I relished it as much as the first.

"Deep down, we know our devotion to reality is just a marriage of convenience, and we leave it to the seers, the shamans, the ascetics, the religious teachers, the artists among us to reach a higher state of awareness, from which they transcend our rigorous but routinely analyzing senses and become closer to t...more
Shirley
A delicious and sensual book about our senses.
Jenny
This beautiful book is half science, half poetry. With a series of small essays, each section explores a different sense.

Sometimes she dashes through cultural differences, making lists. Sometimes she takes a long time to explain the mechanics of such things as tongues and ears. Often she adds in little stories, tiny anecdotes from her own life. Sometimes she gets caught up in passionate descriptions of the things she touches, tastes, hears or sees. And sometimes she stops you cold with a single...more
Alicia Christian
Ang sarap. I took my time reading this book because I savoured the language and the words. Diane Ackerman was able to marry the sensual and the sublime and she also took our exploration of the senses to new and unimaginable heights by making the personal into the universal. When one reads this book, it feels so great to be human that while we lament the evolutionary baggage of our reptilian ancestors by being aggressive and territorial with one another, we are connected to each other as human be...more
Amy Janczy
Beautifully written account of how hearing, taste, sight, scent and touch are experienced and were experienced over the millenium. I didn't read the very end of it because I couldn't renew it again and frankly she is such a good writer I was feeling very inept by comparison. Lots of fun facts. For example, Dame Edith Sitwell used to like in an open coffin for a while before starting her day's writing. Benjamin Franklin wrote in the nude, sometimes in the bathtub. Check it out. Prepare to renew i...more
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500 Great Books B...: A Natural History of the Senses - Diane Ackerman 1 2 Jul 27, 2014 01:30PM  
  • The Flight of the Iguana: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature
  • The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession
  • 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
  • Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume
  • About This Life
  • The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live & Why They Matter
  • The Control of Nature
  • The Riddle of the Compass: The Invention that Changed the World
  • The Solace of Open Spaces
  • 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
  • Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place
  • Writing the Natural Way
  • Practice of the Wild
  • The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
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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...
The Zookeeper's Wife A Natural History of Love One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, a Marriage, and the Language of Healing An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain 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.” 53 likes
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