Michael Sims

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Sims sees his book in the tradition of blazons anatomiques, “poetic tributes to the individual parts of the female body” originating in France in the mid-sixteeenth century. He adds, of course, men, including Adam. Working from head to toe, Sims assembles a very wide variety of scientific facts, cultural perceptions, and representations of the human body by artists, writers, and scientists.

Sims sticks to the outside of the body—no internal organs, nor, it follows, no sense of the integrated body. After a brief Overture (on skin), Part One, Headquarters, treats hair, face, eye, ear, nose, and smile (mouth). Part Two, The Weight of the World, discusses arms, hands, breasts, and the navel. Part Three, “A Leg to Stand On” (but no mention of Oliver Sacks), deals with “Privy Members” (the genitals), the buttocks, legs, and feet. There is no concluding chapter.

Sims draws on sources as diverse as Greek myth, Darwin, Lombroso, French painters, movies, popular culture, Jane Goodall’s chimps, the Bible, feminist writers, William Blake, etymologies, anthropologists, and modern science writers. There are some references to Native American cultures, Africa, and the East, but he stays mostly in the Western tradition.

Chapter 8, “The Monkey’s Paw,” is a good example of Sims's method. He discusses (in this order) handshakes, carpal tunnel problems, Michelangelo’s God and Adam on the Sistine ceiling, the “phalangeal formula” of handbones in mammals, Jesus’s crucifixion, Robert Schumann’s hand troubles, the importance of the thumb for humans, fingerprints, palmistry, and handedness (Ben Franklin was left-handed) and more in 40 pages. The interesting facts keep coming, but there is no basic theme or concluding overview.

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