A Natural History of Love

What made Diane Ackerman’s 1990 best-seller A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE SENSES such an enjoyable read was the author’s ability to incorporate gracefully her personal sensory experiences with scientific facts and historical anecdotes. Disappointingly, an attempt at the same technique fails in Ackerman’s A NATURAL HISTORY OF LOVE. The sections on the science of love (about one-third of the book), from the efficacy of aphrodisiacs to human biochemistry, are the most interesting. The historical sections (another third) for the most part consist of the tedious retelling of well-worn ancient myths, such as those of Orpheus and Eurydice and Tristan and Isolde.

The remaining third of the book has little to do with the subject of love. In relating her personal passions, Ackerman has crossed the line from prose enrichment to self-indulgence. Instead of a natural history of love, readers are confronted with a compendium of Ackerman’s loves: New York’s American Museum of Natural History, horses, her unruly hair. In pursuing tangents of personal interest she leaves her subject matter—and the reader’s attention—far behind. She devotes almost a page to Sigmund Freud’s hobby of collecting Egyptian, Greek, and Roman antiquities; twenty pages go to horses. Many topics—dinosaurs, Benjamin Franklin, Ackerman’s experience of a shipwreck in the South Seas—are connected by only the thinnest of threads to the subject of love.

At the beginning of the book, Ackerman acknowledges that versions of several sections were originally published in seven different magazines. Perhaps that is why the book’s topics, rather than smoothly flowing into one another, read like a thrown-together mishmash. The reader is left with the impression that the author was stretching for material to fill space. Although Ackerman’s prose is lush and delightful as always, her lack of devotion to her subject matter leaves her audience with a frustrating tease of a read.