Monday, January 2, 2012

The Natural History of Love, by Diane Ackerman

This book is very flawed. 

Ackerman contradicts herself about how the Old Testament god loved (in one passage it's unconditionally, a hundred pages later it's only if you've proven yourself worthy); she's only interested in heterosexual desire; her parental gender roles are set in stone (and in the 1950s); she gets the origin myth of the narcissus wrong; she messes up the chronology of the plot of Hamlet; she uses Pyramus and Thisbe as an example of a tragic romantic couple, when anyone who's ever seen a good production of Midsummer will go into a helpless giggling fit at the phrase "Ninus' tomb"; and she occasionally writes sentences like, "Why do we need a duvet cover for the warm, rich, feather comforter of sensuality?"

These are problems. The sloppy ones are especially problematic because they cast retrospective doubt on the research done for the first section, which is the history of love, sexuality, and marriage throughout the Western world, and which is really quite fascinating. I enjoyed this first third of the book very much, but later wondered about it once I'd seen that she couldn't even be bothered to glance back at Hamlet and find out if "Get thee to a nunnery" comes before or after "Lady, shall I lie in your lap?"

But it went off the rails for me entirely in the middle section, which she fills with:

1.  Six pages about how a woman's hair is the only secondary sexual characteristic which matters, and that the longer and more wild the hair is (how much like Diane Ackerman's it is, in other words; this whole middle section is all about her personal experiences) the more sensual a woman is, that cutting off a woman's hair desexualizes her, and how women with children cut off their hair to signal that they are no longer sexually available. Ohhh-kay. Setting aside that this book was written in 1994, before the widespread development of the pixie haircut, some women (like me, showing my own bias here) have always looked better with shorter hair, and what about the exposure of the neck? Ackerman never once, in the entire book, mentions the neck as an erogenous zone. She's too busy talking about the times she's been considered dangerously erotic and womanly because of her hair. 

2. Twenty-two pages (fully 7% of the book) about women and horses. Ackerman claims that all little girls not only go through a phase of being wild about horses but that all little girls have access to horses recreationally. Seriously. She looks back on her privileged Pennsylvania childhood and is incapable of thinking that a different type of childhood exists. And then we get 22 pages about having a big sweaty animal between one's legs (yeah, yeah, we've all read "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl", this is not news) and how every eight-year-old girl wants this (ewww) and how every eight-year-old girl can just buy jodhpurs and riding boots and head down to her local stable. I don't know, maybe it would be interesting to a woman who did have a passionate relationship with horses in her childhood. I have never cared about horses one way or the other. Ackerman does say that given her age, there were no sports really available for girls when she was growing up, so she turned to horses. But a better use of page space would have been a couple about horses and then a lot more about what exercise and sport in general means for girls coming into their sexuality and their bodies. The book at this point was rapidly turning into "Diane Ackerman's Personal History of Love and No One Else's".

3. Ten pages about the Indy 500, because all men love is cars. And only men love cars. Also, Diane Ackerman gets leered at by drunk men a lot, because her breasts are so amazing. After the horses, and because I adore my car and adore driving, I skimmed this part. 

4. Four pages about flying in dreams and how wonderful it is and always about sex. Some of us are terrified of heights and only dream about falling, never flying, and I am just going to leave that in the hands of Freud. 


These issues made me as angry as they did because the book really had potential. When Ackerman isn't going off the rails with duvet metaphors, she writes quite well, and like I said, the first third of the book was fascinating, until I started doubting the research. And it read quite quickly, and was often hard to put down. But she just comes at it far too much as if it were a memoir, instead of a piece of reportage. She tacks on a bit about pets at the end, and it's immediately obvious she's never had one in her life; after the pages and pages rhapsodizing about the bond between women and horses, the best she can say about a cat or dog is that its owner is holding it prisoner and what seems to be the pet's love is just Stockholm Syndrome. For heaven's sake.

So, alas, this book frustrated and irritated me, and yet it's not badly written, and the idea of a book on this topic pleases me. I imagine that there are probably better ones out there. 

Next up: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, by Alan Bradley. Yes, I recently read a Flavia de Luce book, but this is my EarlyReviewers one, and those get priority. 

1 comment:

  1. Confessional nonfiction strikes again--I'm not reading this one!

    I was a horse-crazy girl-child, and horses were about speed and power and running and wide open spaces and going FAST. Ackerman's horses probably snickered about her under their breath.