Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “A Natural History of the Senses” as Want to Read:
A Natural History of the Senses
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

A Natural History of the Senses

4.16  ·  Rating details ·  7,038 ratings  ·  695 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. ...more
Trade Paperback, 352 pages
Published September 10th 1991 by Vintage (first published June 2nd 1990)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about A Natural History of the Senses, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about A Natural History of the Senses

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 4.16  · 
Rating details
 ·  7,038 ratings  ·  695 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of A Natural History of the Senses
☘Misericordia☘ ⚡ϟ⚡⛈⚡☁ ❇️❤❣
A lot of thingys on senses. A lot of diverse material. Some of it rather extreme or nasty. And I was honestly going to rate this 3 stars but then I went to the paragraphs on sky and universe and they conquered me. A very good book to peruse at one's leisure to promote one's understanding of how our senses guide us, have been guiding us all along through this wonderful world.

Автор книги о косметике «Секреты мэтра Алексиса из Пьемонта» (Les secrets de Maistre Alexis le Piémontais) уверял, что е
Jul 23, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 11, 2009 rated it did not like it
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
Oct 12, 2015 rated it really liked it
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
Sarah Canavan
Oct 09, 2007 rated it it was ok
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
Jan 08, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Feb 14, 2015 rated it did not like it
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
Joanne Harris
Apr 03, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 27, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Erica Bauermeister
Sep 03, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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.
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. ...more
Mar 17, 2015 rated it liked it
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
Feb 10, 2012 rated it did not like it
Perhaps I'm too left-brained for this book, but for me, reading "A Natural History of the Senses" is like drowning in quicksand. Ackerman divides the book into six sections: Smell, Touch, Taste, Hearing, Vision and Synesthesia. There are many things I don't like about the book, but I will admit that she is consistent. By that I mean, that she consistently annoys me.

From the beginning she is over-the-top poetic in her narrative using flowery language and overusing literary imagery such as metaph
May 05, 2010 rated it liked it
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
Jun 22, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Greta Fisher
Aug 18, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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... ...more
May 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Kate Conroy
Feb 08, 2016 rated it really liked it
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
David B
Dec 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 14, 2009 rated it it was ok
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
Anna Banana
Feb 25, 2009 rated it really liked it
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 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
Feb 25, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Jan 16, 2021 rated it it was ok
this book has been more a [to read in short snatches at 2am when i'm tired but can't actually fall asleep] and it never fails to make me fall asleep so there's that...

anyway there were some interesting parts but i felt it was all very superficial in treatment and she'd move on before it got /rly/ interesting yet kept dwelling on themes i didn't care for. that's on me though i guess!
Aug 28, 2009 rated it liked it
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 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
Jul 24, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Jun 28, 2016 rated it liked it
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
Mark McTague
Jul 19, 2018 rated it did not like it
The title misled me. I enjoy natural history ("The Hidden Life of Trees", "A Sting in the Tale", "Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants"), and I expected far more scientific discussion than I found here. As Publishers' Weekly said, "Physiology and philosophy mesh in this poetic investigation of the five senses," and that is what one gets - 1/3 physiology, 1/3 philosophy, and 1/3 poetry. The combination gave me indigestion. I want to learn about how the senses work, and their beauty a ...more
Jan 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
Diane Ackerman writes with the soul of a poet while maintaining the intellectual honesty of a scientist. Her curiosity and wonder about our universe cannot be contained within a mere book. Her wide ranging adventures with animals, trees and much of the natural world left me with a twinge of envy!
Her writing flows lyrically, chronicling the five senses and how we perceive them in different situations; from the exotic to the mundane, from the erotic to the repulsive.
Cutting a ⭐️ for two reasons
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »

Readers also enjoyed

  • The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities and Meaning of Table Manners
  • Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival
  • Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses
  • The Unlimited Dream Company
  • The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul
  • Have You Eaten Grandma?
  • Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World
  • The Collected Poems
  • House Made of Dawn
  • The Island of the Colorblind
  • 1066: The Year of the Conquest
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
  • Carol Rama: Antibodies
  • The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara
  • A Woman Speaks: The Lectures, Seminars and Interviews of Anaïs Nin
  • Slow River
  • Teresa's Man and Other Stories from Goa
  • The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook and Other Stories
See similar books…
See top shelves…
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 bestsellers The Zookeeper’s Wife and A Natural History of the Senses.

The Zookeeper’s Wife, a little known true story of WWII, became a New York Times bestseller, and received the Orion Book Award, which honored it as, "a groundbreaking work o

Related Articles

Juneteenth, observed on June 19th each year, is an American holiday commemorating the day in 1865 when the last enslaved people in Galveston,...
70 likes · 14 comments
“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.” 97 likes
“It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.” 73 likes
More quotes…