Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Review: A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman

Diane Ackerman (via)
Reviewed by Ingrid


It's about: Diane Ackerman explores the science behind our five senses and how different cultures have sought to stimulate the senses throughout history. She writes, “what is most amazing is not how our senses span distance or cultures, but how they span time. Our senses connect us intimately to the past, connect us in ways that most of our cherished ideas never could.”

I thought: The Chicago Tribune blurbed, "Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses is an aphrodisiac for the sense receptors. Read a chapter, then step outside and voila: The sky is a deeper blue, the birds sing a sweeter song. How could the world seem otherwise, after feasting on such voluptuous prose?"

Hmm. Not sure I agree there.

The phrase "voluptuous prose" should be your first warning signal. Granted, I'm extremely critical of any sentimental or flowery writing - I don't like it at all. Some may like it, and that's fine, but it's one of those things that just makes my skin crawl. It's what I like to call "schmaltzy." (That is just a great word, isn't it.)  I think she wrote this way because she wanted the book to feel indulgent and sensual, but it just didn't work for me.

Not only was the writing over the top, but Ackerman seemed to be so swept up in her words that she goes off on strange tangents. For example, in the section on smell, she segues to this little spiel from a time she went scuba diving:
As a human woman, with ovaries where eggs lie like roe, entering the smooth, undulating womb of the ocean from which our ancestors evolved millennia ago, I was so moved my eyes teared underwater, and I mixed my saltiness with the ocean’s. Distracted by such thoughts, I looked around to find my position vis-a-vis the boat, and couldn’t. But it didn’t matter: Home was everywhere.
Speaking of crying, it seems Ackerman is moved to tears on every other page. It's ok to be moved to tears, but once you start crying so often, it feels artificial and starts to move into cheesy territory (a place I like to avoid.) For example, in the chapter on sight she admits:
In the Hall of Gems at the Museum of Natural History in New York, I once stood in front of a huge piece of sulfur so yellow I began to cry.
Besides the writing and the crying, I wasn't very impressed with the way Ackerman presented a potentially intriguing topic. I want to learn about how the senses enrich the human experience - I don't really care about receptors in my nose or whatever. (Christina likes science writing. I suspect she would have liked these sections more than I did.) There was also quite a bit of anthropology. After awhile I got tired of reading that we smell because the cave people needed to smell to know where to get food, or that women have a good sense of hearing because they needed to hear from far away in caves, or whatever, that doesn't make any sense, but you get my point. I just really have no interest in cave people or how humans developed. I'm much more moved by works I can relate to my own emotions and experience.

I realize the title of this book implies there will be science and Anthropology involved, I just think it could have been a much better book if it hadn't focused so much on how our senses work and instead how they make our lives rich and meaningful. (You can tell I'm a Humanities person, can't you.)

Overall, not my favorite book.

Verdict: Throw it in the rubbish bin. Sorry.

Warnings: A few mentions of sex, but in ways that will make you laugh.

What I'm reading next: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo