I was inspired to read and review this book by two things: my local library's science book display (Yay, libraries!) and Sarah's articles on the myths about biology and anatomy that often appear in romance. I thought readers of those threads might enjoy The Science of Kissing (henceforth known as TSoK) based on my first impression of it as a light and entertaining science read. As it turns out, this was a hard book to grade because as a science book it was disappointingly slight – and I say that as someone who's prefers to have science offered up to me in small portions with easy words. On the other hand, the historical content was fascinating and it was a really charming book overall.
I'll let the author speak for herself as to what the book is about and why she wrote it:
“A kiss is one of the most significant exchanges two people can have, serving as an unspoken language to convey our deepest feelings when words simply will not do. From a symbol of love and desire to a perfunctory greeting between family and friends, this act can have innumerable meanings and resonances…Across continents and time, kissing is one of the most important activities in our lives, yet its real nature has been too often overlooked by scientists and laypeople alike.”
As you can tell from the above passage, TSoK is quite beautifully written and never loses its romantic and affectionate tone (except in the chapter called “There Are Such Things As Cooties”, about which I can only say, “GAHHHHH!”). The author explores the history of kissing, cultural contexts, kissing and kissing-like behaviors in the animal worlds, gender differences, hormones, and more.
For such a short book, she covers a lot of ground. Here's a sampling of things I learned: Bonobos and chimpanzees kiss, the first written descriptions of kissing come from India, in general women are more likely than men to view kissing as a necessary component of sex, and men are (again, in general) more interested in tongue. There are many possible reasons why the latter is true, but my favorite theory suggests that, since exposure to testosterone makes women more interested in sex, and men's spit contains testosterone, those deep, wet kisses are the man dumping testosterone into the woman's mouth. Now if that doesn't just scream “Romance!” I don't know what does.
The only problem I have with TSoK is that it's so watered down for the average reader that it's a little bland. There's a lot of “If this is the case, then this might possibly be true” stuff which drives me bonkers. I think this book is well researched, but the author doesn't go into enough detail to back up some of her claims and there's a sense of a lot left unsaid and unexplored. The low grade stems from the frustration I felt regarding the superficiality of the work.
Overall, this book left me with a lovely sentimental glow, some new things to wonder about, and some new insights. It was entertaining and light and informative. My only problems with it lay in being dissatisfied with its lack of detail. I read a lot of science, but I'm usually reading it more from a historical or sociological perspective than for the hard facts, so when I say this book was a little too light, that's really saying something. Still, I enjoyed it overall and I think most people would too.
I think the letter grade would vary based on the goals and expectations of the reader. The writing style itself is consistently fluent, clear, and accessible, and often funny. I keep thinking it would make part of a nice gift basket for someone. It was a good bathroom read – and I realize that may be damning it with faint praise, but I happen to do some awesome reading in the bathroom. To me, a good bathroom read is something that is interesting, not horribly taxing, and that I can pick up and put down without losing the narrative thread. In short, if you are looking for an in-depth scientific discussion this is not the book for you, but if you want to add neat trivia facts to your repertoire and have some new historical and cultural insights to ponder, you will enjoy TSoK very much.