Sunday, May 23, 2010

Books That Awaken the Five Senses

by Martha Engber

Author of A Natural History of the Senses

In A Natural History of the Senses, author Diane Ackerman talks in a most beautiful, literary way, about the sensitivity of whale songs, macabre meals, the taboos of touch and a myriad of other specificities that make a reader come awake to the five senses as never before.

But of all her interweaving of the personal and the science — the connection between what she experiences when walking down her garden path and the kindred makeup of humans and stars — the most memorable is her description of real vanilla, as from a vanilla bean, not only of the scent, but the taste. The flavoring is derived from the vanilla orchid, a plant as beautifully exotic as the desserts of which vanilla is a superstar. Cherry clafouti. Portuguese custard tarts. Homemade vanilla ice cream.

While  my ode to this passage seems based within the realm of taste, the reason I remember the segment is the sensuality her description enlivened.

We often think of sensuality as being only sexual, but the definition is not so limited, but rather encompasses the gratification of, or desire for, sensual pleasures, or those related to all physical reactions caused by what our brains take in via the five senses.

When writing THE WIND THIEF, that sensuality had to be the third character in a largely two-character story. The feel of wind, the grit of sand, the heat of a burning Acacia in a wadi, or dry riverbed. I’ll be talking about such sensuous details at 4 p.m. Sat., May 29, during An Evening in the Sahara Desert: Food, Photos, Facts.

Besides researching the sensual minutia that feeds readers’ imaginations, I also turned to a number of books, movies and music for inspiration, and in specific. In specific, I looked to sources that beheld sensuality as a means of connection between isolated individuals.

Here are a few such sources. I hope you enjoy the offering:


The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Babbette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen

Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Hurong, translated by John Balaban

The History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman


The Scent of Green Papaya (1994)

Babbette’s Feast (1987)


Thimar, with Anouar Brahem, John Surman, Dave Holland

Appalachia Waltz, with Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor

No comments: