Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body

Overview

“A marvelous, organ-by-organ journey through the body eclectic. . . Irresistible [and] impressive.”—John J. Ross, Wall Street Journal
The human body is the most fraught and fascinating, talked-about and taboo, unique yet universal fact of our lives. It is the inspiration for art, the subject of science, and the source of some of the greatest stories ever told. In Anatomies, acclaimed author of Periodic Tales Hugh Aldersey-Williams brings his entertaining blend of science, ...
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Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body

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Overview

“A marvelous, organ-by-organ journey through the body eclectic. . . Irresistible [and] impressive.”—John J. Ross, Wall Street Journal
The human body is the most fraught and fascinating, talked-about and taboo, unique yet universal fact of our lives. It is the inspiration for art, the subject of science, and the source of some of the greatest stories ever told. In Anatomies, acclaimed author of Periodic Tales Hugh Aldersey-Williams brings his entertaining blend of science, history, and culture to bear on this richest of subjects.
In an engaging narrative that ranges from ancient body art to plastic surgery today and from head to toe, Aldersey-Williams explores the corporeal mysteries that make us human: Why are some people left-handed and some blue-eyed? What is the funny bone, anyway? Why do some cultures think of the heart as the seat of our souls and passions, while others place it in the liver?A journalist with a knack for telling a story, Aldersey-Williams takes part in a drawing class, attends the dissection of a human body, and visits the doctor’s office and the morgue. But Anatomies draws not just on medical science and Aldersey-Williams’s reporting. It draws also on the works of philosophers, writers, and artists from throughout history. Aldersey-Williams delves into our shared cultural heritage—Shakespeare to Frankenstein, Rembrandt to 2001: A Space Odyssey—to reveal how attitudes toward the human body are as varied as human history, as he explains the origins and legacy of tattooing, shrunken heads, bloodletting, fingerprinting, X-rays, and more.From Adam’s rib to van Gogh’s ear to Einstein’s brain, Anatomies is a treasure trove of surprising facts and stories and a wonderful embodiment of what Aristotle wrote more than two millennia ago: “The human body is more than the sum of its parts.”
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

"A man cannot marry," Balzac once morbidly advised, "before he has studied anatomy and has dissected at the least one woman." (Fortunately, the novelist had neither married nor dissected when he wrote this.)

Hugh Aldersey-Williams' Anatomies is a cultural history of the human body that features both scientific oddities and our species' own peculiar takes on its strangeness. A spine-tingling and heartwarming tour of a subject close at hand.

Publishers Weekly
Mixing biology, art, literature, and pop culture from the ancient past up to the present, Aldersey-Williams (The Most Perfect Molecule) provides an enlightening and thoroughly engaging view of the human body. Although he divides the corpus into part-specific chapters, Aldersey-Williams avoids a reductionist view of the subject, reflecting instead on how our components come together to make us fully human. Along the way he relates myriad humorous, informative, and provocative stories—in the chapter on flesh, he describes the “autocannibalism” of food critic Stefan Gates, who “converted fat extracted from his body by liposuction into glycerol for use in icing a cake, which he then proceeded to eat.” He also apprises readers of how to make a shrunken head, and describes “a new kind of love token” being pioneered by artist Tobie Kerridge: “rings made from the bone tissue of their partner.” He also explains why it’s not uncommon to find subjects with two left feet in paintings, the science behind facial recognition, and the skeletal demands of ballet. From the dissection laboratory to a live-model drawing class, Aldersey-Williams illuminates the contours of the human body from head to toe. 16 illus. Agent: Antony Topping, Greene & Heaton (U.K.) (June)
Matt Ridley
“Science writing at its best.”
John J. Ross - The Wall Street Journal
“[I]rresistible…. A marvelous, organ-by-organ journey through the body eclectic…. We have only to read Anatomies to realize that the body is still a thing of wonder.”
Tony Miksanek - Booklist
“This book is crammed with curiosities…. Enjoyable and unpredictable.”
Kirkus Reviews
A literary exposition of the body by an English science writer. Aldersey-Williams (Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc, 2011, etc.) traveled, did extensive research and even dissected cadavers in an anatomy class to get a feel for what humans are like, inside and out. The result is a historical telling of how bodies have been viewed by cultures old and new. At various times, the body was seen as a world to be explored, with parts named by their discoverers. With Descartes came the concept of the body as machine, with a separate soul. Occasionally, the body was viewed as an ideal, measured to fit inside a circle or square, or of such perfect design as to reflect divine creation. Not until Shakespeare's time, following Vesalius' anatomy treatise in 1543, did "anatomizing" take off in earnest, helped by laws dictating that after hanging, criminals' bodies were to be dissected. Such a law enabled Rembrandt to paint The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, which actually shows a dissected right forearm on the left arm of the cadaver. There weren't enough bodies, however, hence the advent of grave robbers. Female bodies were also in short supply, and murders of pregnant women may have figured in the production of the first atlas of fetal development. In format, Aldersey-Williams moves from the lore of the body, skin and bones as a whole, to major areas like the stomach, brain, blood, head, face and sense organs, providing a rich repertoire of folklore, humor, literary and art references for each. He ends with speculations on "extending the territory" with prostheses, hybrid creatures, robots, an increase in life span, and so on. You'll still need an anatomy textbook to grasp all the body's parts, but this book is a lovely, lively complement.
Thomas Wright - Telegraph (UK)
“A magnificent exploration of the myths and mysteries of human anatomy…. Aldersey-Williams writes like a latter-day Montaigne.”
Florence Williams - New York Times Book Review
“Fresh [and] revelatory.”
Leslie Jamison - New Republic
“Not so much an attempt to make sense of the body as an attempt to make sense of all the ways we’ve ever tried to make sense of it. . . . A massive cocktail-party primer filled with anecdotal pearls.”
John J. Ross - Wall Street Journal
“Irresistible. . . . A marvelous, organ-by-organ journey through the body eclectic…. We have only to read Anatomies to realize that the body is still a thing of wonder.”
Library Journal
This engaging cultural history will appeal to readers who appreciate multidisciplinary perspectives on the subject of anatomy. British science writer Aldersey-Williams (Periodic Tales) draws upon his extensive knowledge of art and history, as well as science, to provide here an elegant cultural history of human anatomy. His clever titles for the parts of the book feature, e.g., a prolog entitled "The Anatomy Lesson," offering Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp as an entry point to the intellectual inquiry. In Part One, "The Whole," he introduces the body as an entity composed of two fundamental components, flesh and bones. Then he "dissects" the body in Part Two, "Carving Up the Territory." Pertinent chapters include the "The Head," "The Face," "The Brain," "The Heart," "Blood," etc. Throughout, the author interweaves allusions to art, poetry, history, and science, demonstrating ways in which each discipline relates to, and illuminates, the others. VERDICT This provocative book will appeal to a broad group of readers who enjoy histories that cross disciplines. Gross anatomy this isn't!—Lynne Maxwell, Villanova Univ. Sch. of Law Lib., PA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393239881
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/3/2013
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,434,048
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Hugh Aldersey-Williams is the author of Anatomies, Periodic Tales, and The Most Beautiful Molecule, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He lives in Norfolk, England.
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