December 01, 2005


A Left-Hand Turn Around the World: Chasing the Mystery and Meaning of All Things Southpaw. By David Wolman. Da Capo. $23.95.

Scholastic Book of World Records 2006. By Jenifer Corr Morse. Scholastic. $9.99.

     Much of society has a longstanding, deeply ingrained preference for the right-handed and bias against the left-handed.  Consider the Latin words: dexter means “right,” and gives us the positive connotations of the word “dexterous”; “sinister” means “left,” and there is nothing positive about the meaning of the modern word “sinister.”  Yet there are also persistent rumors that the left-handed are more creative than righties; and certainly their minority status tends to produce an instant bond.  The left-handed David Wolman spent a year touring the world of left-handedness, which meant literally touring the world, and then produced a delightfully quirky work of popular science that also possesses serious elements.  Wolman visited neuroscientists, psychologists, left-handed golf enthusiasts, palm readers, and Left Hand, West Virginia.  One of his most fascinating chapters is about the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta, where psychobiologist Bill Hopkins believes he has discovered handedness in chimpanzees – a matter of considerable controversy.  Wolman’s overview of Hopkins’ exploratory method gives a good sample of this book’s style: “Chimpanzees will throw sticks, bits of food, and dirt, but most often shit, usually at their friendly neighborhood primatologists. …’If they’re going to throw at me, I figure I’m going to get some data out of it,’ says Hopkins, as only a true scientists could.”  Wolman’s book is part travelogue, part explanation of scientific research, part humor – and all fascinating, not just for lefties but for the 90% of people who aren’t.

     There is no world record for writing about left-handedness in Scholastic Book of World Records 2006 – if there were, Wolman would probably win it – but there are plenty of other fascinating records here.  The book is arranged by broad categories (popular culture, science and technology, sports, etc.) and by specific categories within the broad ones: “Nature Records” includes animals, disasters, food, natural formations, plants and weather.  The book does not pretend to be comprehensive, but it does provide an interesting, sometimes fascinating look at various sorts of record-breaking achievements.  The world’s best-selling recording group, for instance, is the Beatles, but the world’s top-earning band is the Rolling Stones (who, in fairness, have had many more years of performing during which to earn).  Some of the records here remain the same every year: the deadliest snake is the black mamba, the deadliest amphibian the poison dart frog.  Others – in sports, for instance – may change year after year.  The unexpected records are the most fascinating part of the book: the country that drinks the most tea per capita every year is not China – it’s Iraq; but the country that produces the most fruit per year is China (the U.S. is fourth).  This is a book through which to meander on a stay-at-home day, idly flipping pages to learn about the largest asteroid (2001 KX76), the world’s most destructive tornado since 1900 (Oklahoma City, 1999), and the state with the world’s largest motorcycle museum (Alabama).

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