Sunday, June 10

A Natural History of the Senses

A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman,PhP 200, AS Walk

The Amazon source page indicates that A Natural History of the Senses (Book #14) cites 91 books, and in turn it is cited by 403 others. Not bad for a book that's been around for a little over 15 years.In my very first creative writing class, our professor, a Jesuit in the making who loved floral shirts, forced us listen to Everything But the Girl's "Didn't Know I Was Looking For Love," loads of post-Police and pre-tantric sex Sting, Madonna reading a poem by Pablo Neruda, and one time, dolphin sounds. Among all the things he introduced us to, the one that stayed the most with me was reading excerpts of Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses.

I kept the pages on the history of kissing and synesthesia that he gave us. Last year, I saw a copy of the book in one of the table sales by student orgs lining up the AS Walk. The pages were already yellowing and it was rather dog-eared, but since I haven't seen it anywhere else (or too expensive everywhere else) I got it for PhP200.

Ackerman accompanied me through many lunches and afternoons spent in my office in between classes. One reviewer commented that the book isn't made for cover to cover reading, and I must agree. But only because I believe this is a book that must be savored, sensually experienced over time. There's really not too much history in the book per se--it's science or nature writing really. But the botto line is that you get to learn a lot of things. For example, that musk, a key ingredient in perfume, was discovered up in the mountains by lonely goatherds who had nothing else to do but observe that a red jelly-like substance forms on sheep's genitalia. Or was it a goat? That by choosing to wear a scent, what we really are declaring is that we are ripe with pheromones and we want to mate. "Do you think I'm more shaggable when I smell like grapefruit and oranges or when I smell like a tennis player?" Of course, one never asks the sales person this over the counter. This all happens deep in our bones and veins, at the tips of our neurons and synapses, a kind of shared unspeakable memory.

A Natural History of the Senses is best read in spurts and stretches. Often I told myself I'd just finish one little bit, just this piece about perfume. Ackerman's language has a lusciousness to it, or as one reviewer said, it's all about "the heady succulence of life." I can only experience and live with too much headiness or succulence. It's perhaps why it took me several months to finish this. I also admire her ability to include the self in topics like a shuttle launch, or leaves turning red in the fall, or the pursuit of butterflies and glaciers. Some reviewers tag Ackerman as a little self-absorbed because of this. I don't mind it at all.

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