Sunday, July 26, 2009

Natural History--Two very different books

I have recently finished reading two very different books with deceptively similar titles: A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman (1991), and A Natural History of Seeing, Simon Ings (2008).

Ackerman's book takes us on a whirlwind tour of each the five senses, primarily via various anecdotes from the author's personal life. Her prose is flowery, occasionally dangerously close to saccharine or syrupy. Her descriptions of the sensory systems are very oversimplified and sometimes inaccurate, and practically no discussion is given to the history of the senses or the study of the senses. (Indeed, a more appropriate title for the book might be A Personal History of My Senses.) Interesting tidbits of information are interspersed throughout the book, but I found the over-the-top poetry and flights-of-fancy into the experience ("qualia"?) of being sensate too distracting to make up for the dearth of any substantial information.

Ings, on the other hand, has written a fascinating, educational, and readable book. His thoughts about his infant daughter and the development of her visual system provide a bit of narrative, but A Natural History of Seeing succeeds because of the information he presents about the evolutionary history of the eye and the social and cultural history of the researchers who have studied it. Both the science and the history are precisely written in clear, non-technical language.

The contrast between the two is striking, and it made me think about how difficult it would be to write non-fiction about scientific topics that manages to be both interesting and accurate.

Sarah Marcum '08

A Natural History of The Senses
Grinnell College Science Library BF233 .A24 1990

A Natural History of Seeing
On order

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