The Deepest Sense: A Cultural History of Touch

Constance Victoria Classen, Author
Constance Classen. Univ. of Illinois, $25 trade paper (296p) ISBN 978-0-252-07859-0
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Sensory historian Classen (Worlds of Sense: Exploring the Senses in History and Across Cultures) tracks the most intimate sense from the Middle Ages to the present day in this thorough and anecdotal history. The author grounds her surveys of touch—from its role in religion and healing, to its use as a basic form of social communication—in contextual analyses of how the sense shaped society as a whole. While these contextualizations occasionally result in overlong tangents, Classen is particularly effective when she focuses in on specifics; the story of the Parminter cousins, and how they turned the A la Ronde house (a 16-sided cottage) into an exploration of the tactile through the texturing and shaping of their interior space, is pleasantly peculiar, as is the affecting and humorous tale of a medieval farmer being reunited with his stolen donkey, an emotional occasion which prompted one witness to wonder "whether the beast or its master gave tokens of the higher affection." But the book is most successful in its tracking of the shift from a culture dominated by touch—wherein museums allowed patrons to handle artifacts—to one dominated by the visual, wherein items are kept behind glass so that only sight can "touch" them. Although the book sometimes loses focus, Classen ultimately provides a nuanced and informative narrative on how humanity's relationship with touch has changed throughout history. 8 b&w photos. (May)
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