23. A Natural History of the Senses

After weeks of trying to get myself to finish The Art of Noticing — a book I truly love and truly just do not seem able to finish right now — I pivoted, as they say these days, to this old lurker on the shelves. The choice was prompted by a passing reference to Diane Ackerman in some newsletter I subscribe to — We have something by Ackerman, don’t we? Indeed we do.

A Natural History of the Senses is 30 years old, and I almost certainly purchased it during the century now ended. I am certain that many of the references cited are out of date, some of the anthropology suspect. And yet.

In the Hall of Gems at the Museum of Natural History in New York, I once stood in front of a huge piece of sulfur so yellow I began to cry. I wasn’t in the least bit unhappy. Quite the opposite; I felt a rush of pleasure and excitement. The intensity of the color affected my nervous system. At the time, I called the emotion wonder, and thought: Isn’t it extraordinary to be alive on a planet where there are yellows such as this?

As we grind through Year 2 of the pandemic — less and less likely to have any definitively agreed upon endpoint — which seems to have a common effect of alienation, it would appear that what I need are books suffused by sensate reality, and Ackerman’s lush descriptions were a balm to my nerves. This is one of those volumes you can open to any random spot and find something there to delight the imagination. Her page on kissing alone is worth the price of the book. (The cover price in 1991 was $11.00. Can you remember books being that cheap? It’s $17.95 now, and in one of the chapters she recounts watching the launch of a space shuttle, which she describes as “clinging like the young of some exotic animal” to its rockets.)

The book is divided, reasonably enough, into sections for smell, taste, touch, etc., with a final chapter on synesthesia, all of them described with a rich depth of feeling (in the sense of sentiment) that is quite without self-consciousness.

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