BEING LEFT-HANDED is nothing special, as much as left-handers (of which I'm one) might like to believe otherwise. Handedness itself — the fact that most people favor one of their hands, detracting from the symmetry between the left and right sides of the body — is intriguing; so is the fact that left-handers make up only roughly 10 percent of the population around the globe. But the actual experience of being left-handed is rather mundane, by most accounts. In the United States, in the not too distant past, it went something like this: When you were young, you struggled to operate your classmates' scissors. The paper bunched up awkwardly and made finishing an arts and crafts project take a few minutes longer. You completed an assignment with ink smudges down the length of your pinky finger. Maybe you picked up a guitar and had to hesitate with the fingering for a few moments. When you were older, you bumped elbows with a right-hander at a restaurant if you didn't seat yourself strategically. You had to rearrange the knife and fork — or maybe you couldn't, for reasons of etiquette. These are the stories that lefties remember; these are the anecdotes that get revisited, for polite chuckles, at cocktail parties.
These days, even these minor differences may be disappearing. In 2011, schoolchildren spend more time typing than they do writing, and etiquette is being phased out. And so, a few moments of discomfort notwithstanding, life plays out pretty smoothly for today's left-handers. You are classified as a lefty only insofar as you choose to be (or insofar as you choose to play sports, where left-handedness can be a definite advantage). To be left-handed is to belong to a club by accident, a club with a single, clear identifying feature that nevertheless gives no real sense of identity to the club. If you want left-handedness to mean more, you have to make it mean more. You have to go around wearing T-shirts that say things like, "If the left side of your brain controls the right side of your body, and the right side of your brain controls the left side of your body, then left-handed people must be the only ones in their right minds" (attributed to southpaw comedian W.C. Fields). You have to subscribe to the image of lefties as savants. You have to exclaim, "Benjamin Franklin was a lefty, and so was M.C. Escher. So were five of the last seven U.S. presidents. And so am I!" Most lefties do a roll call of illustrious left-handers from time to time (Caesar! Michelangelo! Hendrix!). It provides us with some inspiration on our off-days.
Yet just as left-handers can sometimes be inclined to make too much of their distinguishing mark, so is there occasional misplaced excitement for the phenomenon in the literary world. Rik Smits's The Puzzle of Left-handedness is the latest attempt to provide a survey of how lefties have been portrayed, conceived of, and accounted for through the centuries, and although Smits casts a wide net and writes with evident enthusiasm, it isn't clear, by the end of the book, why he took the trouble to write it.
There are interesting moments littered throughout, to be sure. If nothing else, Smits's sketch-like chapters show that left-handedness can be used as a lens through which to examine larger historical trends. In ancient times, and up to the medieval ages, when superstition stood in place of explanation, left-handedness had moral connotations. It was associated with an inversion of the natural order. Paintings depict Go...