A Natural History of the Senses
Diane Ackerman is a woman intoxicated with the marvels of sensory experience. She keeps a wide plank by the tub so that she can write while luxuriating in a long bubble bath; she spends an hour each morning cutting and arranging a bowl of flowers from her own garden (though she does not say what she substitutes during the long winter months—her home is in Upstate New York); she drops casual references throughout her book to her many exotic adventures ("On a cruise to Antarctica ... “; “When I worked on a cattle ranch in New Mexico ... “; “When I was scuba- diving in the Bahamas ... .” This is a breathless book.
A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE SENSES is bursting with quirky facts and statistics about the way humans and other animals use their senses to interact with the environment. For example: Animal musk is so similar in chemical composition to human testosterone that a person can sniff out as tiny an amount as 0.000000000032 ounce. Among the Pygmies of Zaire, a mother keeps direct physical contact with her infant at least 50 percent of the time. The colors red and green are not visible to prairie dogs.
Such tidbits are interwoven with personal reflections, memories, descriptions of landscapes and the night sky, and—only once—a rather petulant outburst against “sensory misers.” There is much here to entertain, to surprise, to delight. Ackerman’s images are often dazzling (autumn: “Soon the leaves will start cringing on the trees, and roll up in clenched fists"). Sometimes, however, they are undisciplined ("a thick lager of fog sits in the valley like the chrysalis of a moth").
Indeed, after a hundred pages or so (of more than three hundred), readers may find the sheer volume of detail cloying, like the “lucent syrups” and “spiced dainties” of John Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes.” One begins to long for sensory deprivation, for a writing style that is more austere, less voluptuous. The paragraphs are long and often rambling, and annoying editorial lapses mar the book’s second half. Perhaps the copy editor, too, grew weary of so many arresting images.
The book is indexed, and it contains a list of sources for those readers who wish to do further reading about the curious achievements of the senses. Instead, however, one might do well to close the book gently and shut oneself up for a few hours in the blessed silence of a cool, dark room.