Manhood: The Rise and Fall of the Penis

By MELS VAN DRIEL

This vastly entertaining, eclectic book, written by a Dutch urologist, is full of myths, lore, natural history and medical information about the male nether regions. Full, ahem, disclosure: it may not feel like the world’s most comfortable subway reading, or even the sort of thing one would wish to plow though before bed. Rich with various black and white photos of deformations to said nether regions, it is not, shall we say, a very sexy book.

However, it is an interesting grab-bag of knowledge about this culturally, socially, and sexually important  (and yes, sometimes impotent) organ across time and culture. It is even informative across species: this reader had never known that the long corkscrew penis of the Argentine duck, at 43 cm, is longer than the duck itself. Nor had she considered that the stickiness of sperm is an evolutionary adaptation by male animals to seal off the wombs of the females with whom they have mated. Such wisdom is only the beginning: it is fascinating, if also a bit disturbing, to learn the history of reproductive science: In the mid seventeenth century, Dutch scientists cut open a recently murdered (and presumably raped) prostitute, and later a murdered wife, in order to prove that sperm indeed went into the uterus, presumably (as was then thought) as “homunculi.” (Women, presumably, were merely vessels for nurturing these miniature, though fully formed male creations.) One can take a bit of revenge on those Dutch scientists: what of the idea that the testes themselves, outside their sac, are nothing but a fine mesh of tubules that dissolve completely into something akin to silly string?

Not all observations are so grisly. Many are funny, some are simply informative. Together, they offer compassionate, if occasionally scattered, account of the long human struggle to understand — and to celebrate —  the sometimes baffling workings of men and their malest members.