How 10 Toes, 52 Bones, and 66 Muscles Shaped the Human World
Carol Ann Rinzler
Bellevue Literary Press ($16.95)
by Ryder W. Miller
In Leonardo’s Foot, internationally bestselling health and medicine writer Carol Ann Rinzler gives the subject of our feet—something we take for granted until we are plagued by podiatric woes—a fascinating medical and historical treatment. The full title of the book advertises the humorous irony that imbues these pages: “How 10 Toes, 52 Bones, and 66 Muscles Shaped the Human World.” This historical travelogue is a stylish, informative, entertaining, and pleasantly personal book.
Though the faceless skeleton on the cover looks worried, there is not a lot of medical advice given here. Whereas a similar title may offer platitudes (take care of your feet and they will take care of you; ignore your feet at your own peril; if icing and elevation don’t solve the issue, you may have something to talk with a doctor about), Rinzler’s book may actually help you understand your pain without giving you a textbook-induced migraine in the process.
Leonardo's Foot provides context and history to explain the maladies we have experienced over the ages. Rinzler's treatment is wide-ranging with natural history, human history, and cultural and artistic history. The information is presented in a logical and stylistic way, rather than being a mere collection of related facts.
The story begins in pre-history, with Rinzler writing:
In the beginning, when we were not yet first among primates, our feet were still hands and that toe was still a finger, special opposability, but a finger nonetheless. As it evolved, moving into line with the other four, our third and fourth hominin hands became feet. We gained a platform on which to stand . . .
She continues to unearth literary connections, as well: Lord Byron had clubbed feet. Leo Tolstoy, Omar Khayyam, and Feodor Dostoyevsky were shoe fanciers. In a fascinating passage, the book postulates that we did not invent language or the ability to talk to each other until we learned how to stand up on our feet.
Despite its scope, the book manages to keep your attention. Whether Rinzler is exploring how our feet explain or illuminate such topics as evolution, disability, racism, diet, or desire, she maintains a fascinating perspective on the peculiarities of being human—like how having a chin distinguishes us from all the other animals on the planet. If the book goes astray, it might be when it describes the foot in metaphorical sexual terms (it was Freud who argued that the foot for some represented the penis, the shoe the vagina). Some like looking at shoes and feet, but we certainly sexualize legs and other parts now more than in the past.
Rinzler titled the book Leonardo’s Foot after the fact that Leonardo da Vinci, going against church doctrine, was one of first people to study the foot. He conducted more than 30 dissections of human corpses, and his anatomical drawings have survived through the ages. He helped us understand how our feet are an integral part of the human experience—and a platform for an entertaining book such as this.
Editor’s Note: This review’s original appearance in the Fall 2013 Print Edition of Rain Taxi Review of Books featured a typographical error in the author’s name. The review appears here with the error corrected.