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A Natural History of the Senses Paperback – Sep 10 1991

4.4 out of 5 stars 45 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (Sept. 10 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679735666
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679735663
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 1.8 x 20.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 975 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars 45 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #103,339 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

From Amazon

"One of the real tests of writers," notes Ackerman in this liveliest of nature books, "is how well they write about smells. If they can't describe the scent of sanctity in a church, can you trust them to describe the suburbs of the heart?" Ackerman passes the test, writing with ease and fluency about the five senses. Did you know that bat guano smells like stale Wheat Thins? That Bach's music can quell anger around the world? That the leaves that shimmer so beautifully in fall have "no adaptive purpose"? Ackerman does, and she guides us through questions of sensation with an eye for the amusingly arcane reference and just the right phrase.

From Publishers Weekly

Physiology and philosophy mesh in this poetic investigation of the five senses; essays explore synesthesia, food taboos, kissing and the power and diversity of music. "Rooted in science, enlivened by her own convincing sense of wonder, Ackerman's essays awaken us to a fresh awareness," said PW.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I read "A Natural History of the Senses" about ten years ago just a few months out of art school. I thought that I was fully engaged in the world and was aware of all that was around me. I soon learned that I was mistaken. I had been moving through the world virtually half-asleeep, just pushing my way through crowds and not really paying attention. I began opening myself fully to all experiences (through my senses) and I started to feel alive in a new way. I began a slow but steady transformation that has meant everything to me. Touch moved me most and eventually I went back to school and became a Massage Therapist. I am able, not only to experience my world in a new way; but I am also able to share something as comforting as massage with someone else. That is truly amazing!!
Diane Ackerman's style is enlightening and poetic. A Natural History of the Senses is one of those books that you share with good friends and read over and over again. I still have my very first paperback copy (now autographed and a bit tattered) and it inspires me to be aware every day!
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Format: Paperback
"A Natural History of the Senses" draws the reader into a study of the five senses from the biological and cultural perspectives. Organized sense by sense, it starts with a brief scientific explanation of the sense and then delves into a survey of its cultural variations. Often the human sense is compared to and contrasted with those of infra-human species.

A few examples illustrate the writer's art. In the section on touch, author Diane Ackerman discusses the different reception between the touch of an intimate and that of a stranger. In the sections on sight and hearing, she contrasts the range of perception of humans with that of other animals, some of which have broader ranges than humans and others which have more narrow ranges. In the sections on taste and smell she explores the interplay of the two and gives examples of tastes and smells which are treasured in some cultures and are considered to be repulsive in others.

On the balance this is more of a cultural study than a scientific one. This gives it a balance which makes it an interesting work for a broad range of readers
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Format: Paperback
DA has a wonderful writing style that makes reading her book a sensory pleasure in its own. At the risk of sounding sexist, it must be mentioned that the power of this book lies in the wonderfully delicate and detailed descriptions of the various senses and their experiences. While DA has chosen a subject that is reasonably biological, it is her descriptive flair for the minutiae, her almost artistic way of writing and her sense of joy and wonder which she conveys; all make this book a wonderfully engrossing tale about our sense organs.
While DA succeeds at opening our eyes (and ears, nose.... etc) to the world around us, perhaps the only shortcoming of the book lies in creating expectations in the reader of a rigorous treatment in the biological/evolutionary development of the sense organs. The reader seeking such a detailed analysis of the senses and their development would be served better by looking elsewhere. However, this book is a tasty little morsel and food for thought.
Definitely worth a read.
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Format: Paperback
Diane Ackerman not only explains why the fall leaves are changing colors outside my window (p. 257), but why the prairie dogs also living here are color-blind to the change of seasons (p. 265). In her fascinating study of the human senses, Ackerman, a poet and naturalist, demonstrates her talent for blending art, history, anthropology, psychology, literature, and natural science to define one of life's biggest questions: what it means to be human and fully alive. In understanding "the gorgeous fever that is consciousness," she explores the origin and evolution of the five senses, how they vary culturally, their limits and taboos, their folklore and science, and "what they can teach us about the ravishing world we have the privilege to inhabit" (p. xix). Along the way, obviously in love with the mysteries of life, Ackerman explains such things as why eating chocolate reproduces the sense of well-being we feel when we're in love (p. 154), why eating $500-a-pound truffles "make one's loins smolder like those of randy lions" (p. 161), why we close our eyes when we kiss (p. 230), and why we spend forty-nine million dollars on a van Gogh painting (p. 268). Reading A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE SENSES brought me to the edge of my senses. This book is among the best books I've ever read.
G. Merritt
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Format: Paperback
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 connection to each other apart from the particular sense under discussion. One moment we might be reading about the latest (at the time of publication) scientific findings about our sense of smell; on the next page we may encounter profiles of people who work as professional smellers for the perfume industry; from there we might move to Ackerman's own garden or a memory of time spent in a eucalyptus grove. The result is an interesting, highly idiosyncratic journey through our senses and what they mean to us.
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