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216 × 138 × 27 mm
304 pages
78 illustrations
01 Aug 2011
  • £25.00

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The Puzzle of Left-handedness Rik Smits

Left-handedness seems to be no big deal. Many of us are left-handed and those of us who aren’t don’t tend to give left-handedness much thought. Yet throughout history left-handers have been associated with clumsiness, untrustworthiness and insincerity. The Latin word for left, sinister, is redolent of all kinds of ominous connotations. Rik Smits uncovers why history has been so unkind to our left-handed forebears. Through an array of historical anecdotes, strange superstitions and old wives’ tales, Smits explains why left-handedness continues to be associated with maladies of all kinds, including mental retardation, alcoholism, asthma, hay fever, diabetes, insomnia, suicidal urges, criminality and shorter lifespans.

But apart from folklore and myth, the notions of left and right have a real and deep influence on the way we experience the world. These influences show up everywhere, from engineering and architecture to music, painting, photography, film and comics. This book shows how, contrary to what many might think, left-handers can write just as well as the rest of us, and explores how and why we came to prefer one hand over the other and how left- and right-handedness are represented in the brain. The greatest puzzle is why in every country one in ten people favours the left hand. It is a mystery as yet largely unsolved, whose solution may very well lie in the secrets of twinning. The Puzzle of Left-handedness is an enlightening and entertaining odyssey through the enigmas and paradoxes, theories and experiments surrounding the left-handed among us.

‘There is a whiff of negativity around left-handedness, admits the science journalist and lefthander Rik Smits in this fascinating study of the phenomenon . . . popular legends about left-handedness and left v right in general are scarcely less virulent, and Smits dispatches them entertainingly and ably . . . thoroughly enjoyable.’ — Sunday Times

‘[Smits] history of handedness is a fascinating cornucopia of science and superstition . . . He neatly skewers many pseudo-scientific claims, including the myth of high mortality rates among left-handers.’ — The Guardian

‘In this scholarly and entertaining book, Rik Smits takes us on an impressive odyssey through the paradoxes and theories of left-handed lore.’ — Mail on Sunday

‘[a] fascinating study of left-handedness . . . Mistrust of the left hand, as Smits shows, is widespread, but he dispatches popular legends about left-handedness entertainingly and ably, in a trenchant defence of the misunderstood left-hander’ — The Culture, Sunday Times

‘It is a lively read, and Smits, a linguist and science writer, shows his wide range of knowledge throughout . . . The book is well arranged, with mainly short, crisp chapters. I thoroughly recommend it as a good overview of issues related to hand preference . . . Everyone will find something thought-provoking, witty or just interesting, regardless of personal hand preference.’ — Times Higher Education

‘[Smits] is a clever and thorough researcher . . . sprinkled with enough oddball characters and head-scratching factoids to keep you reading.’ — Washington Post

‘in his highly entertaining and erudite book, left-handed linguist and science journalist Rik Smits dispenses with the positive myths alongside the negative ones.’ — The Dubliner

‘Like language, and sexuality, left-handedness is a very human thing and this cabinet of curiosities goes into the cultural prejudices at length.’ — The Melbourne Age

The Puzzle of Left-handedness takes a sympathetic look at discrimination against this minority . . . This book does a first-rate job of deconstructing bogus theories linking left-handedness with everything from cancer to alcoholism.’ — Kansas City Star

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Rik Smits is a linguist and science journalist and is the author of Dawn: How Language Made Man (2009). He is left-handed.

1. Malice and Misunderstanding
2. The Left-handed Picador
3. Opposites and Contradictions
4. Taboos, Sex and Handicrafts
5. Lovers of the Left
6. Magic and Superstition
7. The True Nature of Left and Right
8. Strange Creatures in the Uncanny Valley
9.  Witchcraft and Pogroms
10. Factionalism
11. The Ideal Warrior
12. The Polymorphism of One-sidedness
13. The Heart of the Matter
14. The Power of Small Differences
15. How Freud Found his Right Side and Pooh Didn't
16. Why a Running Rabbit Doesn't Tear Itself Apart
17. Tintin's Law
18. Dead Men and Voluptuous Women
19. Mary's Little Troublemaker and Other Portraits
20. Little Johnny Cries to the Left, Little Johnny Smiles to the Left
21. The Circle Dance of the Alphabet
22. The Weight of the Liver
23. The Morbid Views of Abram Blau
24. Thwacking and Hurling
25. Thinking About Brains
26. Animal Crackers
27. Other Asymmetries and Preferences
28. Tallying Up
29. Genetic Left-handedness
30. Hormonal Left-handedness
31. How Even Detrimental Characteristics Can Survive
32. Left-handers as Undercover Twins
33. The Consequences: Contrary, Perverse and Sick
34. Two Left Hands: The Ford Scale
35. The Things That Make Us Do
36. Writing and Other Useful Handiwork
37. The Myth of High Left-handed Mortality
38. Creative, Musical, Brilliant and Famous!

Photo Acknowledgements