Sunday, January 25, 2015

if you're looking for something waaaay out of the ordinary, try this: Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, by Frances Larson

Liveright/W.W. Norton, 2014
317 pp


I discovered this book a while ago while reading the "Briefly Noted" book section in the New Yorker.  I knew I had to have it, so I bought it the same day and started reading it as soon as it arrived. 

This book deals with, as part of a back-cover blurb notes, 
"Heads as prizes, heads as art, heads as objects of instruction, heads as symbols of triumph over enemies"
but that little bit doesn't even begin to describe it.  Over the course of several chapters, the author chronicles the history of shrunken heads, of heads taken as trophies, of beheading as a spectacle and severed heads as objects of power, about the fascination of heads used in art, the heads (and other body parts) of saints used as relics, of the study of heads and pseudoscience (phrenology, etc) and in real science (as tools for medical students), and finally, in a chapter called "Living Heads," which in part, explores the scientific (and other) attempts to determine how long the head lives after being severed, as well as the fascination people have with keeping their head alive so a body can be reattached when science has advanced beyond its current capabilities.  All of this is put together to explore the significance of the head in the history of western civilization  -- including the social detachment that goes along with the physical. 

It's not only well written, but the author, who definitely has done some fine work here,  has made her history extremely reader friendly and very accessible. 

It's a weird subject, but as I'm sure you may agree, sadly relevant to our times.  

I've posted about this book on the nonfiction page -- and I definitely recommend it. 

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