Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Bite: A Natural History of the Senses (Diane Ackerman)

It's about that time again, ladies and gentleman. It's been so long since we had a Book Bite that I've decided to share one of my favorites. Like most bibliophiles, I probably have at least one or two hundred 'favorite' books, but this one really is one of my favorite books... of all time. In fact, I liked it so much that I pilfered my tattered, dog-eared, and well-traveled copy from a hostel in Astorga, where I stayed while on Spain's Camino de Santiago last summer.

What book was so awesome it incited me to thievery on a religious pilgrimage? Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses. In my defense, it was one of several books left by pilgrims for other pilgrims to enjoy, so it wasn't outright theft - though that doesn't make the book any less un-put-downable!

The book is ostensibly a tour of the five senses - with an extra chapter on Synesthesia, or sense conflation - but Ackerman's acute powers of observation and her luxuriant prose make it, in her own words, 'an act of celebration.' Ackerman deftly weaves together elements of history, science, anthropology, and even personal memoir in the course of the book, and the scope of her subject matter is truly expansive; from the evolution of the kiss, and a revealing look at the mysterious world of parfumiers, to a sumptuous description of the sense-rich dinner parties enjoyed by the Romans. She smoothly and eloquently tackles age-old questions (Why do leaves change color in the fall? How do we feel pain? Why do we prefer sweet flavors over bitter ones?) and posits others we might never have even thought to ask (What would the world sound like if we could hear every frequency? How has our sense of hearing influenced our language? Why don't all languages name every color?).

Ackerman rhapsodizes over the pungency of real vanilla, in her chapter on Taste (probably the most interesting section for readers of this blog, though by no means, the only section worth reading):
Walk through a kitchen where vanilla beans are basking in a loud conundrum of smell, and you'll make some savoring murmur without realizing it. The truth about vanilla is that it's as much a smell as a taste. Saturate your nose with glistening, soulful vanilla, and you can taste it. It's not like walking through a sweetshop, but more subterranean and wild. Surely this is the unruly beast itself, the raw vanilla that's clawing at your senses. (p 159)

But, lest you think her prose a little too high-flown and her subjects too abstract, Ackerman also dives fearlessly into the world of food engineering and the science of taste:
We normally chew about a hundred times a minute. But, if we let something linger in our mouth, feel its texture, smell its bouquet, roll it around on the tongue, then chew it slowly so that we can hear its echoes, what we're really doing is savoring it, using several senses in a gustatory free-for-all. A food's flavor includes its texture, smell, temperature, color, and painfulness (as in spices), among many other features.  Creatures of sound, we like some foods to titillate our hearing more than others. There's a gratifying crunch to a fresh carrot stick, a seductive sizzle to a broiling steak, a rumbling frenzy to a soup coming to a boil, an arousing bunching and snapping to a bowl of breakfast cereal. "Food engineers," wizards of subtle persuasion, create products to assault as many of our senses as possible. (p142)

Her admittedly extravagant prose might not be to everyone's taste (no pun intended! though to those who agree, I recommend reading the book in small, more manageable installments) but it's perfectly suited to her subject matter and one of the aspects I most enjoyed. Whatever your opinion of her style, she is an undoubtedly enthusiastic narrator - deftly navigating from one topic to another with such infectious gusto that it's almost impossible not to be carried along.

I think I first read this book in the perfect setting (after long days spent outdoors, as I walked across Spain), and though I don't agree with all of her philosophies and assertions (Ackerman displays an almost spiritualistic reliance to evolutionary theory, which is distracting at times), I loved every minute of the journey. I hope you will, too!

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