A Natural History of the Senses is Diane Ackerman’s celebration of smell, touch, taste, hearing and vision. It is one part science text, as Ackerman gives thorough coverage of how each sense works, and part ode, as she also provides many vivid, detailed examples.
There are some very interesting facts here: for example, each hair on your head grows for two to six years, at which point the follicle rests and that hair falls out. Other times, Ackerman is strangely, egregiously wrong. For example, she says, “Our skin makes up about 16 percent of our body weight (about six pounds)” (p. 69). Lady, do you weigh 38 pounds?
Ackerman has a bizarre, spiritual obsession with evolution, like she’s crying out for a meaningful relationship with God while holding herself above such a concept. She’s high on mysticism but low on religion. This Oprah-style treatment of the world doesn’t gel well.
Ackerman writes utterly without inhibitions. The best example of this is her detailed account of how she once stuck her arm up a cow’s vagina (for veterinary purposes). She is also quick to connect every sense to sex as often as possible. Sometimes, it makes sense, other times it’s an obvious stretch, and the reader may well wonder why she’s trying so hard.
A Natural History of the Senses has some worthwhile material in it, although each section runs overlong. Ackerman’s unique style is both a help and a hindrance to this book, as she’s charming at times and tiresome and ridiculous at others.
TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT