Thursday, June 13, 2013

What is Hugh Aldersey-Williams reading?

The current featured contributor at Writers Read: Hugh Aldersey-Williams, author of Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body.

His entry begins:
I’m presently working on a book about Sir Thomas Browne and his relevance to the 21st century debates on science, society and religion. Sir Thomas who, you ask? He was a 17th century physician, philosopher, antiquarian and mythbuster of Norwich, the city near where I live. He tends to be known, if known at all, to English literature scholars for some beautifully ornate essays, such as Urn Burial, a disquisition on mortality and the places where are remains are deposited. (It’s more cheerful than it sounds.) For those new to Browne, and scientifically minded, I’d recommend quick dips into his vast catalogue of people’s ‘vulgar errors’, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, all available online.

My research involves looking into the strange things people believed at the time, as well as the keeping of physic gardens, the conduct of witchcraft trials, and so on. When writing Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body, I found myself repeatedly drawn to this period as the one where men first began the systematic investigation of the human interior, so I am already immersed in the medicine and science. All vital background, but I find that fiction also helps me...

I’ve been enjoying Rose Tremain’s Merivel, the long-awaited sequel to her highly praised Restoration. These novels...[read on]
About Anatomies, from the publisher:
An eye-opening, spine-tingling, heartwarming tour through the extraordinary history and secrets of the human body.

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.”
Learn more about the book and author at Hugh Aldersey-Williams's website.

Writers Read: Hugh Aldersey-Williams.

--Marshal Zeringue