A lighthearted exploration of the human body, drawing on myth, religion, art, pop culture, history, biology, and any other -ology that suits the purpose here: to delight, astound, and inform.
After opening with an overture to the skin, journalist Sims (Darwin’s Orchestra, not reviewed) divides the body into three regions: head and face, arms and torso, and lastly (and rather oddly), genitals and legs. For each part he entwines physiology and culture, elucidating how a part functions, what it has come to mean, how it has entered our language and literature. Anecdotes abound. The examination of hair covers not just its structure but its symbolic power as displayed by Samson, Rastafarian dreadlocks, Veronica Lake’s peekaboo hairstyle, its use in witchcraft, and its treatment in etiquette guides. The mouth leads Sims into dissertations on the smile and the kiss, tales of Louis Armstrong’s painfully split lips, and the roles of the tongue in tasting and talking. From his chapter on the hand, we learn about the evolution of the handshake and the many ways in which the thumb turns up in figures of speech, with some fingerprinting history and palm-reading lore thrown in. Bellybutton lint, navel-gazing, and controversy over the proper depiction of the bellies of Adam and Eve are considered in the chapter on navels. And so it goes, as Sims works his way from top to toe. His route need not be the one taken by the reader, however, for this can be opened at any page, so densely packed with fascinating information that it is probably best read in small chunks. Choice tidbits include the fact that the Komachi Hair Company in Japan sells a pubic wig called the Night Flower, that certain chimpanzees hold hands and kiss, or that Houdini could pick a lock with his toes. Sources include Seinfeld episodes, Michelangelo’s paintings, and the writings of Stephen Jay Gould.