{Book Review} A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman

If you’re anything like me, you have trouble fitting all the books you own into your home in a manner that says, “I’m intelligent and organized,” and not so much, “I don’t care how old they are or if I’ll never read them again, they’re mine, they’re my babies, and you can’t make me give them up.”

I suffer, as one could guess, from the latter.

I like to blame it on the fact that I enjoy books with lots of pictures (which take up more space and make for larger books), but the truth is that books are knowledge – when you want to learn something, you read a book. (Or use Wiki, but you get my point.) Books allow people to transcend boundaries, and there’s something unbelievably gratifying about carrying a ratty old tome around with you, turning the bookstore-scented pages as you absorb word after word. Sure, a Kindle would be convenient, but I’m positive it wouldn’t give me the feeling that I’m spending time with a friend I don’t get to see as often as I’d like – which is how a book makes me feel.

So, to honor my book addiction, I’d like to review books for you. The first in this series is one that I admittedly spent more time reading than I meant to, but thoroughly enjoyed.

 

Ackerman talks history, culture, and physiology when it comes to our human senses: touch, smell, taste, vision, and hearing. I wonder if some of her scientific data may be out of date now, but the vast majority of her book is still full of facts that had me raising my eyebrows and mumbling, “Wow!”

For example, in the chapter on our sense of smell (my personal favorite), Ackerman reports that many of the first perfumes developed by humans were actually derived from animal parts: ambergris from sperm whales, castoreum from beavers, genital secretions of the civet, and musk, a secretion from the gut of an East Asian deer. Why did we lust after such bold scents? Ackerman says it’s because these chemicals’ molecules are of similar shape to human hormones and affect us the way human pheromones might. In essence, these four animal secretions are similar to our own steroids, and we therefore respond to them with arousal. Thus anyone wearing the bum juice of a beaver becomes instantly more attractive, even if the smell isn’t exactly floral.

Ackerman also tells us that we can smell animal musk in as little as 0.000000000000032 of an ounce. Which, to me, is cool because 1) we respond to a different species’ chemicals and 2) because that says something about how our sense of smell is still somewhat sensitive. (Say that five times fast.)

In the chapter on touch, Ackerman tells us that in a study performed in Oxford, Mississippi, waitresses lightly and unobtrusively touched their customers on the hand or shoulder. The diners that were touched didn’t necessarily rate the food or the experience any better than untouched diners, but consistently tipped the waitresses more money.

If you’re interested in learning more about why humans behave the way we do, put this book on your To-Read list immediately. We tend to think of ourselves as thoughtful and emotional creatures, but our experiences are completely informed by our senses; some of these we are aware of, and others we don’t even realize we have. (When was the last time you remember smelling testosterone? Right, but you did smell it.) Ackerman is a sense-driven person and so often her writing reads like a poem written in an opiate stupor, but if you too are a sensual person, than you’ll love this book!

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More?

Diane Ackerman has also written these books that are on my To-Read list:

A Natural History of Love

An Alchemy of the Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain

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Posted on August 26, 2010, in Book Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I really enjoyed your review. It’s fascinating thinking of all the things going on that we are usually completely unaware of. I’m with you about books, it’s so hard to part with them!

  2. Thanks Cait!!

    I think it’s impossible to be a curious person and not collect so many tomes. I actually go through separation anxiety. I sent one of my favorites books to my best friend because I thought she’d like it, but also because I was trying my hardest to pare down my collection. I actually had emotions about it, isn’t that silly? I still think about that book…

  3. It’s an extraordinarily sensuous book, both in language and intent. And I wholeheartedly agree with your statement about books allowing us to transcend boundaries. The more the merrier….

  4. When I was kid, books really took me away – I’ve always been a great visualizer, and so I found it easy to get wrapped up in the worlds written in the pages. I still feel that way, and when I’m having a bad day, I’ll often reach for a book of animal images or a children’s book. I find it totally soothing. I’ll be reviewing kids’ books too, because I think adults can benefit from reading them. I know I do; there’s such innocence and joy in kids’ books sometimes, and adults don’t get enough of that!

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