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This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture Hardcover – 1 Jun 2016
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This book is a good place to start thinking anew about reinvigorating debates deconstructing mindbody dualism. (Joanna Bourke, Journal of Medical History)
Engrossing and provocative... leaves readers eager for more. (Erin Sullivan, The Lancet)
Slight in weight ..., but not in intellectual breadth. Alberti gives us a new history of the body, primarily the female one. Crucially, she answers the 'so what' question, powerfully demonstrating why the history of the body matters. (Joanna Bourke, Books of the Year 2016, BBC History Magazine)
Moving and thought-provoking [This Mortal Coil shows] how understanding our bodies is integral to understanding ourselves. (Wendy Moore, New Statesman)
Alberti has provided a compelling history, which explores the relationship between the biological body, with its bones, skin, guts and genitals, and the language and metaphors we use to describe it, without reducing one to the other. Written accessibly, and in beautiful prose, this book will appeal to historians, social scientists, medical professionals and the general reader alike. Highly recommended. (Hazel Croft, BMJ Blogs)
Fay Bound Alberti proves again that she is an exquisite storyteller and compelling historian. This Mortal Coil is an enthralling history of our bodies. (Joanna Bourke, author of The Story of Pain.)
Bound Alberti is well known for her insightful analyses of the body... this book is a good place to start thinking anew about reinvigorating debates deconstructing mindbody dualism. (Medical History)
About the Author
Fay Bound Alberti is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow in History at Queen Mary University of London, having taught previously at universities throughout the UK, including Manchester, UCL, and Lancaster. A founding member of the Centre for the History of Emotions, she has written extensively in the fields of history, medical history, and women's history, including Matters of the Heart: Locating Emotions in Medical and Cultural History (2010), also published by Oxford University Press, which was shortlisted for the Longman History Today book of the year award. She is also an experienced philanthropy advisor who has worked as Head of Philanthropy for the Arcadia foundation and Head of Medical Humanities Grants for the Wellcome Trust.
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Alberti writes fluently and given her focus on contemporary bodily narratives this book has crossover appeal to both an academic and more general readership: it's light on theorisations of the body and keeps all its scholarly apparatus out of the way.
It's a little sketchy on the historical background to the corporeal narratives that emerge from the nineteenth century onwards (for example, racial narratives in the early modern period are far more complex, contradictory and problematic than this book allows) but focus is fine. I guess I feel the title is a little misleadingly general for what this book actually offers: the 'history and culture' is primarily modern and contemporary.
So an interesting updating on where the body (or female body) stands in our current cultural narratives: this will speak to scholars and students working on body histories, and probably prove an illuminating read for non-academics.
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This volume works on several levels and could, I think, be of interest to a reader on any or all of them. One overarching theme is the lamentation over the loss of the treatment of the whole body, indeed the whole person, because of today's (over?)emphasis on specialization. Alberti stops short of actually wanting to go back to those days, without all of the knowledge the specializations have provided, but certainly wants to find a way to treat the entire patient through a more coordinated use of specialists. It is not really the scope of this work to attempt to figure the logistics for such a system but such a desire is strong.
Changes in how and why we perceive our bodies differently are presented in chapters that are, well, specialized for lack of a better way of saying it. Each chapter is about an organ (or the system associated with an organ) and through cultural and medical examples we are presented with how things have changed. The example I think everyone knows and understands to some extent is the shift from the heart as the location of our "soul" or identity to our brain (or mind) as the seat. While some phrases remain in popular discourse, such as feeling love in the heart, we know now that that is not the case.
I would recommend this to anyone who is interested in the study of the body in society or culture (a field that has been active for well over 50 years, not just the past 20) as well as those interested in the pathology of the body as it is often portrayed in popular culture. This book is academic in topic but written for a general audience with a minimal amount of jargon or complex theory.
Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.