A book about filthy people really has no business being thoroughly entertaining. But author Katherine Ashenburg's The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History
, which charts the history of human hygiene, is a winner from start to finish despite concerning itself with a motley cast of real-life characters who either don't wash at all (medieval Europeans) or who wash themselves with almost ritualistic fervor (ancient Romans and Greeks).
With exhaustive research and a brisk writing style, Ashenburg similarly transformed grief into a must-read subject in 2002's poignant The Mourner's Dance
. Here, she lays out factoid after unbelievable factoid, each demonstrating how hygiene impacted society in ways much greater than just causing a stink. For example, in the mid-17th century, because "washing the body happened so seldom, it ceased to be a subject for painters." In ancient times, men and women bathed communally, spawning a lucrative prostitution business. And the dawn of the advertising age took notions of personal cleanliness and cosmetic care to often ridiculous proportions. In Ashenburg's capable hands, this is really fascinating stuff, with plain old dirt receiving one of the most compelling (and improbable) biographies of the year. --Kim Hughes
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From Publishers Weekly
According to Ashenburg (The Mourner's Dance
), the Western notion of cleanliness is a complex cultural creation that is constantly evolving, from Homer's well-washed Odysseus, who bathes before and after each of his colorful journeys, to Shaw's Eliza Doolittle, who screams in terror during her first hot bath. The ancient Romans considered cleanliness a social virtue, and Jews practiced ritual purity laws involving immersion in water. Abandoning Jewish practice, early Christians viewed bathing as a form of hedonism; they embraced saints like Godric, who, to mortify the flesh, walked from England to Jerusalem without washing or changing his clothes. Yet the Crusaders imported communal Turkish baths to medieval Europe. From the 14th to 18th centuries, kings and peasants shunned water because they thought it spread bubonic plague, and Louis XIV cleaned up by donning a fresh linen shirt. Americans, writes Ashenburg, were as filthy as their European cousins before the Civil War, but the Union's success in controlling disease through hygiene convinced its citizens that cleanliness was progressive and patriotic. Brimming with lively anecdotes, this well-researched, smartly paced and endearing history of Western cleanliness holds a welcome mirror up to our intimate selves, revealing deep-seated desires and fears spanning 2000-plus years. 82 b&w illus. (Nov. 15)
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