Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body

By Marschall, Laurence A. | Natural History, July/August 2013 | Go to article overview

Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body


Marschall, Laurence A., Natural History


Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body by Hugh Aldersey-Williams W. W. Norton & Company, 2013; 320 pages, $26.95

Entries in the table of contents of this book reminded me at first of a dry text on the structure and function of the human body: "The Head," "The Face," "The Brain," "The Heart," "The Eye," "The Stomach," and so forth. Reading further, I found, to my delight, that I was mistaken. What science writer Hugh Aldersey-Williams offers, rather, is a series of essays on human corporeality, part biological, part medical, part philosophical, part historical, part sociological. . . rambling, but always surprising and enlightening.

It's a shame he writes so well-I went through the book in a single sitting-because this is the ideal book for easy bathroom reading. Open to any page, and you are immediately drawn in, entangled in a complex network of facts and arcane connections. In the chapter on skin, for instance you begin with the description of a variety of rose introduced in the fifteenth century that was later called, for its color, "Great Maiden's Blush" in Victorian England, but "thigh of aroused nymph" by the less uptight French. Then segue to reflections on the difficulty of reproducing the true color of flesh on canvas, and then to the sculpture of Ron Mueck, a modern artist who has surmounted these difficulties so effectively that his renderings of realistic flesh on out-ofscale bodies-smaller or larger than life-give people the creeps: "Each crease on the knuckles is there, and every piece of stubble on the chin."

Or, turning to the chapter on the head, you encounter the Clown Egg Register, a cabinet of curiosities in a church north of London, which serves as a roster of professional clown faces. …

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