In Review

Book review: The Handshake by Ella Al-Shamahi 

Despite its unpopularity this year, Al-Shamahi defends the handshake in her ‘cheerful, witty and well-researched’ history book

The Handshake by Ella Al-Shamahi 

It may be one of the most ancient human gestures, but in the past year the “handshake has become taboo”, said Stephen Bayley in The Spectator. Covid-19 has transformed it into a “lethal bio-weapon” – with some, including the US president’s chief medical adviser, suggesting it should be eradicated. Ella Al-Shamahi begs to differ: the anthropologist’s new book is a “cheerful, witty and well-researched” history of the handshake, which also “looks forward to its return”.

Al-Shamahi attributes her passion for the handshake to being prohibited from using it during her strict Muslim upbringing, said Jake Kerridge in The Daily Telegraph. As an adult, she came to cherish the fact that the handshake facilitates an “easy bond between all humans” (as evidenced above with Richard Nixon and Elvis), enabling strangers to experience a degree of tactile intimacy while maintaining propriety and respect. I found her enthusiasm infectious: “having not particularly missed shaking hands over the past year, I ended this very engaging little book so desperate to get started again that I’m in danger of becoming a super-spreader”.

This is a “fabulously sparky, wide-ranging and horizon-broadening” study, said Christopher Hart in The Sunday Times. Al-Shamahi disproves the common theory that the handshake originated in the Middle Ages, as a way for knights to prove they weren’t holding a weapon: Glaucus and Diomedes shake hands in the Iliad, and there’s that 9th century BC relief in Nimrud, Iraq, which shows two kings shaking hands; the fact that chimps do a kind of “fingershake” raises the possibility that it is millions of years old. Despite being marred by a few “wokey yawns” (about Donald Trump, for instance), The Handshake is a “joyously unboring” celebration of a gesture that “will probably endure a good while yet”.

Profile 136pp £10.99; The Week Bookshop £8.99

The Handshake by Ella Al-Shamahi 
The Week Bookshop

To order this title or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.

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