Trumble frames this foraying early with ideas from Aristotle, who believed the “most promising seat of the sense of touch” was the heart, and deemed touch the most basic of all the senses. With this foundation, chapters like “The Finger of God” (examining symbolism in most major religions) to “Gloves” (of the days when gloves not only represented high fashion, but also served other steamy purposes such as love tokens and even promissory notes), illuminate the finger’s probing of a multitude of matters.
Trumble additionally delves into fingers as expression, amusingly illustrating for anyone who’s ever roamed the counters at department stores looking for nail polish in “Pink Passion,” “Catherine the Grape,” or “I’m Not Really a Waitress” an era when nail shade was not only considered racy, but perhaps pathological (one physician told the American Psychological Association in 1932 that “bobbed hair and tinted nails were a form of self-mutilation no less harmful than the abnormal cutting off of an arm or starving oneself to death”). And the chapter “The Finger of Combat” lends even more appeal as it tailors to any of us who’ve ever encountered a jerk in traffic and employed the “middle finger,” or any of the gesture’s counterparts around the globe.
It is this sort of humor that keeps such a potentially tedious subject from becoming dry. For example, when explaining the purpose of the subset of Hox genes which are responsible for the development of five fingers on each hand instead of, say, four or six, as well as their role in the development of male and female sex organs, Trumble quips, “No doubt this will raise the question at the back of the classroom as to why men do not develop an exciting array of five penises and women five clitorises. The answer would appear to be that to set in train the further miracle of human reproduction only one of each is ever necessary, and while no doubt amusing, any more than that would be an indulgence and occasionally inconvenient.”
Trumble’s art historian side allows him to correlate the evolution of fingers’ purpose with masterpieces. Alongside the rise and fall of glove wearing, for instance, he notes gloves’ symbolic absence on women in the works of Picasso, Matisse, and other modern masters. Regarding the controversy of nail polish, Trumble points out images of “filbert nails” in the paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Holman Hunt. In the section entitled “The Finger and the Hand,” the author describes a family resemblance in the hands of God and Adam in Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.” Trumble notes of the differences, “Michelangelo has carefully inscribed each hand with contrasting signs of age. The joints of God’s thumb are bigger and maybe stronger; the nail is broader, perhaps worn…”
Where Trumble elevates beyond, say, fingers’ role in the works of Michelangelo and Grünewald, is in his voyage beyond the products of painting and sculpture, of writing and gestures, into the often humorous profundity of humanity. He states, “This book offers not a Casaubon-like map-and-compass of the human digit, so much as a means by which the finger may point with some precision to curious, often funny, and ever more surprising aspects of us.”
Trumble describes the goal of his book is “not to provide an exhaustive history of finger words or of numbers to the power of ten, hand and finger gestures, or sign languages or to account for the ‘finger of scorn,’ or to trace the complicated history of finger bowls.” Instead, he states, it is “to cast a revolving beam across a surprisingly complicated fingerscape, the particularities of which should make possible further navigation.” Considering his sizable expansion into both the cosmic and the earthly, the artistic and the utilitarian, it seems his mission is indeed quite possible.