Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Natural History of the Senses

I've been thinking about this book today, a book I read many years ago (probably around when it first came out) and was blown away by.

What Ackerman excels at is writing about science and statistics and dry factual information with such flourish and charm. Take this passage, for example:

Breaths come in pairs, except at two times in our lives -- the beginning and the end. At birth, we inhale for the first time; at death, we exhale for the last. In between, through all the lather of one's life, each breath passes air over our olfactory sites. Each day, we breathe about 23,040 times and move around 438 cubic feet of air. It takes us about five seconds to breathe -- two seconds to inhale and three seconds to exhale -- and in that time, molecules of odor flood through our systems. Inhaling and exhaling, we smell odors. Smells coat us, swirly us around, enter our bodies, emanate from us. We live in a constant wash of them. Still, when we try to describe a small, words fail us like the fabrications they are. Words are small shapes in the gorgeous chaos of the world.

This paragraph is basically here to communicate some very basic information about breathing and smelling, but it's cloaked in such poetic language: smells coating us, a wash of smells, the gorgeous chaos of the world. It's writing that's certainly not to everyone's taste, but given the topic matter, Ackerman's poetic style makes her work highly readable and fascinating.

After A Natural History of the Senses (the best work of hers that I've read), she did A Natural History of Love which was far weaker. The Moon by the Whale Light was good and, again, a nice balance of science and poetic language, but it's Senses which really has stayed with me all these years: how each of our five senses evolved, how they develop in children, and all the evocative (and provocative) arts associated with each one. It's rare that you finish a book and feel that you've learned a good deal while being entertained. I haven't read One Hundred Names for Love so if anyone has anything to say on this one, let me know...

It's literally been at least 15 or 20 years since I read A Natural History of the Senses. Maybe it's time to break it down and read it again tonight...

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