Michael Sims promised his friends that writing Adam’s Navel would put an end to his frequent and, shall we say, enthusiastic communications about the latest set of whizzbang facts and oddities he had discovered in his wide and voracious reading.
Unfortunately, the completion of his second book, a fascinating, witty and startlingly original head-to-toe tour of the human body, has not had the desired effect. "No," Sims admits during a phone interview from Nashville, "I haven’t actually stopped." Sims does not sound particularly contrite.
And why should he? Sims is the sort of gifted storyteller who can turn the unexpected arrival of roofers into a mini-adventure (the workmen’s loud hammering sent him scurrying from his own apartment to his girlfriend’s quieter abode for our phone conversation). Surely friends and loved ones would notice the gaping, if silent, hole in their lives were Sims actually to follow through on his promise and confine his considerable talents to the pages of books.
Those talents as writer, observer, reader and interpreter are on full display in Adam’s Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form. Sims guides the reader on a spellbinding journey through the physical characteristics and evolution of hair, eyes, ears, nose, lips, hands, breasts, navel, "privy members," legs, and toes, while at the same time ranging knowledgeably through thousands of years of cultural beliefs and artifacts that we humans have developed in response to these parts of our bodies.
In the 40-page section on the hand, for example, Sims discusses the evolution of the handshake, Carpal tunnel syndrome, finger gestures as insults, the history of fingerprinting, the mechanics of gripping, bias against left-handers and the importance of handedness in nature. He reports Marcel Proust’s oddly inverted defense of the limp handshake. He explains the importance of Dr. Wilder Penfield’s neurological diagrams, which "portray the body not as it looks to us but with each area in proportion to the amount of the brain’s cerebral cortex devoted to it." These diagrams provide Sims with a subtle organizing principal for his book and lead him to discover how "the brain’s budget is allocated to each part of the body and how culture responds proportionally."
He manages to mention in a single paragraph: a baby’s tenacious grip on its mother’s finger, the dexterity of violinists and magicians, Frisbees, heart surgery and Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. And this summary doesn’t begin to encompass the range of topics Sims covers or the diverse cast of characters who figure in his relatively brief narrative about the all-important human hand.
This is, frankly, exhilarating stuff, the product of a lively, learned and delightfully idiosyncratic mind. Sims is eloquent in his conviction that "an acquaintance with a wide variety of cultural and scientific topics enriches my experience of walking through the day." Yet for a good many years he worried that his brain was "too cross-indexing and too undisciplined to work as a writer’s brain, and I was going to have to come up with something else to do to support myself."
Such nagging self-doubts aren’t all that surprising in someone who is largely self-taught. Sims grew up outside the small town of Crossville, Tennessee. For a while, his family had no car and no indoor plumbing. At 13 he was stricken by a mysterious illness which he now believes was a combination of rheumatic arthritis, brought on by a bout of rheumatic fever, and tachycardia.
"I was confined to a wheelchair for about five years, but was able to get out now and then with the help of my mother and two brothers. Most days I didn’t leave the yard or, many days, the house itself. I read steadily, of course, first science fiction and mysteries. Then science fiction led me to science-related nonfiction."
Sims had only a passing relationship with college – he didn’t leave home for Nashville and go to work in a bookstore there until about 18 years ago, when he was 27 – but his insatiable appetite for reading, first in science and then more broadly in nonfiction, fiction and poetry, led him into what he calls "the border habitat where science, nature and culture meet." He began exploring that borderland in his first book, Darwin’s Orchestra, which was well received but nevertheless soon went out of print.
Completion of Adam’s Navel has given Sims a new sense of himself as a writer. "I’m beginning to trust myself," he says, "and to trust my instinct for what I think of as resonate juxtaposition. It’s as if I’m making a mosaic out of lots of different facts. Every piece of the mosaic is an aspect of nature or of culture, but it’s how I put them together that will determine if I’ve created an original picture and whether or not that picture will come alive."
Sims’ lively mosaic in Adam’s Navel is also energized by his underlying belief in reason and his comic appreciation for human culture’s often ludicrous betrayals of reason, an interest that is evident in his choice of title for the book. "For me the navel is a very resonate symbol of biology and evolution; it’s the scar that records the single physical links between generations. The cultural response to the navel nowadays is that it’s a fashion accessory. But the age-old theological debate over whether or not Adam and Eve, created in God’s image, had navels is a perfect symbol of how nature and culture interact."
Sims adds: "I get very impatient with the notion that our divine, unlimited consciousness is trapped in this poor limited mortal body, when, really, the body brings everything in the world to the brain. Bodily experience creates consciousness and culture. We perceive everything through the body; we express everything through the body; therefore culture seems to be an emanation from the body."
Readers who take the trip will be captivated by Sims’ tour of their bodies and themselves.
Alden Mudge is a juror for the California Book Awards.