Diane Ackerman was born in Waukegan, Illinois on this date in 1948. Though the author has given the world numerous books over the years, she is best known for 1990’s A Natural History of the Senses. When January Magazine interviewed her several years ago, she said the book has continued to have meaning for many. “People still send me their smell memories,” she said. “Which I like. I’ve become the repository of everybody’s smells.”
Ackerman’s husband, the poet Paul West, suffered a stroke in 2006. Ackerman subsequently wrote about the experience in the very beautiful One Hundred Names for Love: A Memoir (W.W. Norton) which was subsequently nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
For her birthday, Writer’s Almanac celebrates some of the author’s accomplishments:
She has a knack for blending science and literary art; she wrote her first book of poetry entirely about astronomy. It was called The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral, and it was published in 1976, while she was working on her doctorate at Cornell. Carl Sagan served as a technical advisor for the book, and he was also on her dissertation committee. Her most widely read book is 1990's A Natural History of the Senses, which inspired a five-part Nova miniseries, Mystery of the Senses, which she hosted. She even has a molecule named after her: dianeackerone.
In 1970, she married novelist and poet Paul West. They shared a playful obsession with words that was central to their expressions of love for each other. In 2005, Paul suffered a stroke that resulted in global aphasia — an inability to process language — and reduced his vast vocabulary to a single syllable: mem. Even when he recovered the ability to speak, his brain kept substituting wrong words for the right ones, but she encouraged him not to fight his brain, but to just go with it, to say what it was giving him to say. As a result, the hundred little pet names he used to have for her before the stroke have been replaced with non sequiturs like "my little bucket of hair" and "spy elf of the morning hallelujahs." Ackerman wrote about the stroke and Paul's journey back to language in her most recent memoir, One Hundred Words for Love (2011).