The Sensational Past: Book summary and reviews of The Sensational Past by Carolyn Purnell

The Sensational Past

How the Enlightenment Changed the Way We Use Our Senses

by Carolyn Purnell

The Sensational Past by Carolyn Purnell X
The Sensational Past by Carolyn Purnell
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Book Summary

Sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch - as they were celebrated during the Enlightenment and as they are perceived today.

Blindfolding children from birth? Playing a piano made of live cats? Using tobacco to cure drowning? Wearing "flea"-colored clothes? These actions may seem odd to us, but in the eighteenth century, they made perfect sense.

As often as we use our senses, we rarely stop to think about their place in history. But perception is not dependent on the body alone. Carolyn Purnell persuasively shows that, while our bodies may not change dramatically, the way we think about the senses and put them to use has been rather different over the ages. Journeying through the past three hundred years, Purnell explores how people used their senses in ways that might shock us now. And perhaps more surprisingly, she shows how many of our own ways of life are a legacy of this earlier time.

The Sensational Past focuses on the ways in which small, peculiar, and seemingly unimportant facts open up new ways of thinking about the past. You will explore the sensory worlds of the Enlightenment, learning how people in the past used their senses, understood their bodies, and experienced the rapidly shifting world around them.

In this smart and witty work, Purnell reminds us of the value of daily life and the power of the smallest aspects of existence using culinary history, fashion, medicine, music, and many other aspects of Enlightenment life.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. A lively and edifying narrative with lessons for today." - Kirkus

"Starred Review. Purnell, visiting assistant professor of history at the Illinois Institute of Technology, thoroughly yet lightheartedly explores the sensory theories of Europe's 18th-century intelligentsia and how these ideas influenced culture, lived experience, and scientific endeavors of the time." - Publishers Weekly

"With its episodic approach and a propensity for synthesis, this book is largely intended for general readers. It is also a highly entertaining account that achieves the author's stated goal: 'If you learn a little or laugh a little, then I consider my job to be done.'" - Library Journal

"Carolyn Purnell's insightful survey of the ways Enlightenment thinkers made sense of their world offers exciting new perspectives on how we see, smell, hear, taste, and touch our own. As entertaining as it enlightening, The Sensational Past is a dazzling debut by a talented young historian." - Peter S. Onuf, author of The Mind of Thomas Jefferson

"Brilliant insights about the past are juxtaposed with wry comments about how we think today. By finding compelling human-interest stories involving real people, Purnell produces a book that is at once entertaining, erudite, and original." - Gary Kates, professor of history at Pomona College and author of Monsieur d'Eon Is a Woman

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Author Information

Carolyn Purnell

Carolyn Purnell received her PhD from the University of Chicago. She is a history instructor, an interior design writer, and a lover of bizarre facts. This is her first book.

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