The human body – we all have one, yet, most of don’t really think about it until something happens to it, such as falling ill. Until we are reminded of our body’s presence, and find ourselves crying and groaning as we guzzle pills and potions, we spend much of our time taking this extraordinary machine for granted. But it is this very behaviour, our ever-changing relationship with, and views of the body that tells us more about who we are as human beings than any other subject in history.
In Anatomies, author Hugh Aldersey-Williams takes on the rather large topic of the human body in an attempt to promote a more positive and involved view of it. He successfully brings together fact and fiction from all professions that have, in at least some way, focused on the body. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable compendium of all things “body”, with information and stories from science and history, to art and literature.
At first glance, Anatomies resembles a traditional anatomy book, but it is far from the clinical reference books I am used to. Aldersey-Williams’ style is straightforward and clear, void of the usual technical “waffle” typical of scientific writing. Throughout the book, he strongly emphasises the interconnectedness of the various parts of the body, from the way the body’s organs work together in symbiosis, to the mind-body connection that we’ve been hearing more and more about. Further, the body itself unites the languages of science and art, a duel that, while not evident now, was very common during previous centuries.
Perhaps what makes this book so entertaining is that the author has given us the opportunity to ride the coat tails of his inquisitive mind as it navigates, investigates and dramatises its subject matter. Each section begins with a series of questions, the types of questions one might overhear when listening to somebody’s internal dialogue. These follow with the (sometimes rambling) explorative answers containing numerous references, facts, theories, hypotheses, and quotations. I could relate to Aldersey-Williams’ approach – I recognized some of my mind’s own workings in his, and it seemed to make the content feel quite like an adventure. That said, the self-same intellectual ramblings that I enjoyed are not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, so be prepared: don’t expect a flowing narrative and congruent focus, but rather a wild ride.
What I most enjoyed was how Anatomies took me on a cultural expedition. Aldersey-Williams explores the body as it features in the art, literature and philosophy of society. He highlights the place of the body in psychology, and how poets have influenced its representation. Body art, plastic surgery, anatomists, grave robbers, and bionic athletes all make their way onto the pages of this book. Aldersey-Williams paints a vivid and engaging picture of the vessel we inhabit.
Anatomies is an intellectual journey through the body and through our society. It is a celebration of the body, written from the mind, but enjoyed with the heart. A pleasure to read, though, be warned, the über-squeamish might want to avoid this journey under their skin.
Hugh Aldersey-Williams previously wrote Periodic Tales, which turned chemical elements into fun and companionable creatures. He studied natural sciences at Cambridge.