In my five years of experience teaching college English courses, I have noticed a trend amongst young writers toward taking for granted the fact that we experience life through our five senses. Beginning writers tend to overuse the sense of sight: describing things in terms of the visible without paying much notice to the four other senses. This is one reason why I love to teach Diane Ackerman’s masterpiece of nonfiction, A Natural History of Senses, which does a tremendous job getting students to think critically about all five of their senses.
(If you haven’t read it, you’ve got a perfect gift to ask Santa to bring you. Ackerman’s poetry helps transform the otherwise potentially stale material into something magically interesting. Also, if you get hooked, Ackerman has other wonderful books on the natural history of love, and of the brain, which are equally brilliant.)
I also like to share examples of descriptive passages which utilize various of the senses. One of my particularly favorite bits, which focuses our attention on the sense of smell, is from the opening of Patrick Suskind’s unbelievably transplendent novel Perfume:
In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and timorous disease.
I would be keen to learn about other examples of passages devoted to one of the five senses, especially: taste, touch, sound. Anything valuable come to mind?