History of the Senses,by Diane Ackerman1990; paperback, 330 pages
I have had this book in my library for several years, but only now got around to reading it. Frankly, it is superb. The author begins by talking about the sense of smell, in minute detail. With equal excitement and depth of knowledge and research, she then proceeds through the other senses: touch, taste, hearing, and vision. Interestingly, nowhere in the book does she mention nerves, or the nervous system.
The author has a PhD from Cornell University, and began her writing career as a poet. She then began writing books, and at this time has published 34. As the New York Times said in its review, “in A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman conducted a splendid tour of the human body's tools for interpreting the world around it. The simple inventory of smell, touch, taste, hearing and vision provided a sturdy structure into which Ms. Ackerman crammed all sorts of arcane and beguiling information. Because the senses are both natural and cultural – we share them with animals, but they also form the bases of human institutions – she could move smoothly from, say, the mating habits of mice to the activities of the international perfume industry. All seemed to hang together in one big sensory carnival.” That says it well.
To give you a sense of her style, Here’s the opening paragraph of her chapter on Sight, the last of the senses she describes.
Look in the mirror. The face that pins you with its double gaze reveals a chastening secret: you are looking into a predator's eyes. Most predators have eyes set right on the front of their heads, so they can use binocular vision to sight and track their prey. Our eyes have separate mechanisms that gather the light, pick out an important or novel image, focus it precisely, pinpoint it in space, and follow it. They work like topflight stereoscopic binoculars. Prey, on the other hand, have eyes at the sides of their heads, because what they really need is peripheral vision, so they can tell when something is sneaking up behind them. Something like us. If it's a jungle out there in the wilds of the city, it may be partly because the streets are jammed with developed predators. Our instincts stay sharp, and, when necessary, we just decree one another pray and have done with it. Whole countries sometimes. Once we domesticated fire as if it were some beautiful temperamental animal; harnessing both its energy and its light, it became possible for us to cook food to make it easier to chew and, and, as we found out eventually, to kill germs. But we can eat cold food perfectly well, too, and did for thousands of years. What does it say about us that, even in refined dining rooms, our taste is for meat served at the temperature of a freshly-killed antelope or warthog?
She has a clever writing style, as I think this paragraph suggests, and a tremendous ability to make things that don't seem to connect at first, connect. For example, after finishing her chapters on the senses, she has a chapter which she calls “Fantasia.” In this chapter she discusses, for example, how many of us associate sounds with colours. And she describes the quirks of many of her friends and their sometimes-exotic practices. For example, a novelist named Paul West “listened nonstop to sonatinas by Ferruccio Busoni” while writing one of his books.
I'd like to bring this commentary to a close by quoting from yet another paragraph from the book – this time, part of the postscript. Read it, and consider the implications:
…many animals have infrared, heat sensing, electromagnetics, and other sophisticated ways of perceiving. The praying mantis uses ultrasonics to communicate. Both the alligator and the elephant use infrasonics. The duckbill platypus swings its bill back and forth underwater using it as an antenna to pick up electrical signals from the muscles of the crustaceans, frogs and small fish on which it preys. The vibratory sense, so highly developed in spiders, fish, bees, and other animals, needs to be studied more in human beings....
enormous range of sources, from authors of fiction, science writers and an
amazing array of others, she has produced in this book a masterpiece. I will be
reading other books of hers, soon. This book is wonderful; reading it gave me
the sense of being in the presence of genius.