Before I begin, I want to say how much I loved this- in fact, I loved it so much, I’ve bought my friend (who has similar reading tastes to me) a copy as a birthday present.
Severed is one of those books that you approach with some caution; after all, the topic of decapitated heads is not one for casual conversation and not one that we like to confront. However, as Larson points out, our history is literally littered with heads. This book is a study of history, anthropology and culture, linked through humanity’s fascination with heads- as trophies, as vessels, as warnings.
This is the best kind of non-fiction; Larson is entertaining at the same time as sticking to the facts (in a way, her style is somewhat similar to Mary Beard’s). It’s safe to say that I learnt a lot from this book.
It’s not just about famous historical heads, either, although we do revisit those of Anne Boleyn, Marie Antoinette and Oliver Cromwell. There’s also a discussion of the role of decapitated criminals in art and science (there’s a brilliant, if slightly queasy, look at the way heads were used in anatomy classes and what happens if you choose to cryogenically freeze your head after you die.)
However, the main message I got from the book was that heads- and what happens to them- are affected ultimately by power. Colonial, arrogant power that led westerners to maraud around the world collecting ‘specimens’ for their private collectors, ruling elites using execution- and the resulting heads- to keep the population at large in check, and people who want power over their own mortality. Our heads are important symbols- we experience four of the five senses through it, we are adept at reading each other’s faces and they are where we show ourselves to the world. Reading this book, I realised quite quickly that our heads are even more brilliant than we give them credit for.