'The Face' of many faces: Flares of happiness

October 11, 1998|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,sun staff

"The Face," by Daniel McNeill. Little, Brown and Company. 374 pages. $25. Daniel McNeill is a face man. Go ahead. Try and stump him. What part of our face has grown over the last 200 generations? (The chin.) What part of the face is the easiest for a police sketch artist to draw? (Hair.) What's the oldest part of the face? (The mouth.)

The next question is harder to answer: Who cares?

McNeill certainly does. To him, "the living face is the most important and mysterious surface we deal with. It is the center of our flesh." A science journalist, he says we have learned more about the face in the past 20 years than in the previous 20 millennia. And he seems intent on sharing every morsel of data. The result is either the world's most interesting collection of trivia, or a work of nonfiction that will cause your eyelids to droop.

Oh, yes, eyelids, page 27: One millimeter thick, thinnest skin on the body, translucent enough to register light. McNeill can go on all day about the eyelid. He can go on all day about anything. Why we blush. How we lie. The anatomy of a false smile. This is Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Parts of Your Body You Weren't Sure You Ever Wanted to Know Everything About.

The face is more than the sum of its parts. "The Face" isn't. McNeill veers from a treatise on the nose, to the history of portraiture, to the purpose of masks. To his credit, the research is broad, thorough and impressive. He views each part of the face from the angles of history, culture and biology. If there is someone out there who has studied the physiology and psychology of blushing more than Daniel McNeill, please step forward.

Take the kiss. "A kiss is not just a kiss," he writes. Oh, no it's not. It's a chance to cite Talmudic rabbis, the Mafia, Mata Hari, Judas, Renaissance poet Johannes Secundus, Rodin, Jimmie Rodgers and Morganna, the kissing bandit. And that's just for starters.

Reading this book is like playing with the World Wide Web. Keyword: Eyebrow. They keep sweat out of the eye. They help signal emotion, from surprise to anger. Amazon tribes pull them out. Darwin wrote about them. Groucho Marx, John Belushi, Sam Ervin, eyebrow dancers all. "The eyebrows are such active little flagmen of mind-state it's amazing anyone can wonder about their purpose," he writes.

Well, wonder no more. Just like the World Wide Web, a half-hour later you're suffering from information overload. Much of the research in this book is interesting. Some of it is fascinating. But too much of it is just there, like a junior high book report that tries dazzle the teacher with a mountain of facts to hide the lack of a connecting theme.

Maybe this is a self-help book. Want to know if somebody likes you? Check to see if their pupils expand. Want to know if someone is lying? Listen for a change of pitch in their voice. Want to know if someone is happy? Look for a smile. Of course you knew that. But did you know that the smile - "the flare of happiness" - employs two muscles, the zygomatic major and the orbicularis oculi? Now you do. Congratulations.

Face it: You'll learn plenty new here, just like you'll learn plenty new if you study the World Almanac. Just don't expect your pupils to dilate.

Ken Fuson, a staff writer for The Sun, has been a reporter fo more than 20 years, much of that time at the Des Moines Register.

Pub Date: 10/11/98

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