The Book of Human Emotions – Tiffany Watt Smith

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Published September 1st 2016 by Profile Books in association with Wellcome Collection
Full title: The Book of Human Emotions: An Encyclopedia of Feeling from Anger to Wanderlust
Format: Paperback
Author: Tiffany Watt Smith
Genre: Non-fiction, psychology, history, reference
Pages: 308
Star rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Opening lines:

“Look up. Look at the clouds. Are they grey and solemn in a windless sky? Or wisps floating carefully on a breeze? Is the horizon drenched in a hot red sunset, angry with desire?”

Goodreads synopsis:

How do you feel? Is your heart fluttering in anticipation? Is your stomach tight with nerves? Are you falling in love? Feeling a bit miffed? Are you antsy with Iktsuarpok? Or giddy with dépaysement?

The Book of Human Emotions is a gleeful, thoughtful collection of 156 feelings, both rare and familiar. Tiffany Watt Smith covers the globe and draws on history, anthropology, science, art, literature, music and popular culture to explore them. Each emotion has its own story, and reveals the strange forces which shape our rich and varied internal worlds. You’ll discover feelings you never knew you had (like basorexia, the sudden urge to kiss someone), uncover secret histories of boredom and confidence, and gain unexpected insights into why we feel the way we do.

I came across this book for the first time when visiting the bookshop at the Wellcome Collection. That bookshop has got to be one of my favourites, because just walking round it makes me feel like I’m learning, and I could happily spend all day there in the company of the books they sell.

One book that caught my eye was The Book of Human Emotions. Next to the display were a series of postcards, and as a deltiologist (person who collects postcards) I had a closer look.

The book is essentially an encyclopedia of words that describe many of the emotions we feel as human beings. Some of the terms like ‘anger’ and ‘excitement’ we already know, but this book covers words from other cultures which describe feelings we definitely experience but didn’t know there was a word for, such as ‘gezelligheid’ which means feeling cosy.

Each emotion is presented in alphabetical order and is accompanied by a short (or slightly longer) essay explaining what the feeling is, when we might feel it, and the history behind it. You can read the book from cover to cover, beginning to end (as I did) or you can dip in and out of it as you would any other reference book.

The author describes each emotion with great care and detail, and the level of research that has gone into this book is evident. Yet she doesn’t lose the poetic nature of some emotions, and her words take you right into them so much that you might want to take a small break from reading just to reflect on when you last felt ‘hwyl’ (flashes of inspiration) or ‘dolce far niente’ (the pleasure of doing nothing).

This book is quite literally a rollercoaster of emotions, and one that I took whilst on many bus journeys. If you’ve ever been curious about your emotions and the things we feel, then this book is for you, and you’ll learn not only about what it means to be human, but you’ll learn about yourself and the way you feel too.

Link to the book on Goodreads: The Book of Human Emotions

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