A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In the process of working on my present novel, I developed a list of components I've decided should be present in every scene. One of those elements is the clear depiction of where a scene takes place. A depiction so detailed I can tell you everything as though I'd been there myself. As part of such development, I list details related to the five senses.
I never have any trouble filling in details that pertain to sight, such as the size of room and placement of objects within it. But I almost always have trouble addressing what character's hear, taste and touch.
Diane Ackerman's book, A Natural History of the Senses, explains why I have this difficulty, because my animal brain relies first and foremost on sight to provide the quick and crucial information I need to avoid danger and exploit immediate advantages. She then goes on the explain the physiologically and evolutionary basis of our senses.
Rather than be scientific book sucked dry of passion, Ackerman's book is a fantastic twining of fact and philosophy told in a meandering, literary way. As I read the book — in small tastes, as is my habit with books I love (the better to savor them) — the feel was that of strolling with Ackerman through her garden at twilight on a warm summer evening as she pondered the most basic tools humans rely on to survive, both physically and emotionally.
Her prose helped me reconnect to the senses I don't pay enough attention to, so that now when I eat a banana — or ride my bike or catch a whiff of something on the air — I find myself mentally folding over exactly what I'm experiencing.
Even more importantly, I'm coming to understand that the sensory details I place in scenes should not be standard and easy to reach: her breath smelled of mint, his hands were were rough, the clocked ticked. Rather they should be rich and as hard to describe as I find them, because when I do manage to peg the exact input, my readers will be right beside me, appreciating the moment as I do.
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