Anatomies – Hugh Aldersey-Williams


Hugh Aldersey-Williams, famous for his previous Sunday Times bestseller Periodic Tales presents Anatomies as an appealing blend of science, history, literature and art.

Opening with Rembrandt’s 1632 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nocolaes Tulp, Aldersey-Williams makes it clear that Anatomies will not be an ordinary biology textbook detailing the in’s and out’s of human anatomy but instead, how the human body works and how it has been seen through the eyes of society over hundreds of years.


Non-fiction books can be quite dense if the content hasn’t been broken up effectively but with the recent surge of ‘popular science’ books, I was eager to begin reading this latest offering.  Even the outside cover seems playfully humorous and colourful with cartoon drawings and the figure of Michelangelo with a fig-leaf covering up his modesty. So perhaps this indicates that the book’s content will be similarly amusing?

Before the actual Anatomical content begins, there is a prologue. A NINETEEN page prologue- a tad too long if you ask me. However, we must remember that this is only a prologue, so I skimmed some pages and continued on to the real content.

Each chapter is dedicated to an individual part of the human body so readers can dip in and out depending on how much time they have or what they are particularly interested in. With chapters on the hand, the blood, the eyes, even the skin, it certainly covers almost all bases.

However my particular interest? The heart; whose chapter is spent discussing kidney-shaped things rather than anything really heart-related. He simply states  the heart “is many things to many people” and moves on. Here I was slightly disappointed; if you’re going to write about anatomy, write about anatomy. Not just bits and pieces.

Within each chapter, the content itself was broad; ranging from Burke and Hare (two murderers who sold the corpses of their victims to a doctor for his anatomy classes), Einstein’s brain (which has a surprisingly lengthy afterlife) to Van Gogh’s ear (we all know the story.) Jamelia’s hair extensions even made an appearance.

Aldersey-Williams was sometimes rambling, hopping from one detail to another quickly, giving us more an overview as opposed to an in-depth insight into Anatomy. I suspect he wanted his readers to explore the relationship between what the human body actually is and what our perceptions of it are, both individually and within society. And how our shared human history and civilisations have shaped our every day interactions with our bodies and those of others. He does finally achieve this.

3/5 – A slightly difficult read but not an uninteresting or unamusing one.


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