March 17, 1997 12:00 PM

by Jean-Luc Hennig

These days it’s conventional wisdom that we should listen to our bodies—especially if, as these two books suggest, what our physical selves have to tell us is the entire story of human civilization. Marilyn Yalom’s instructive A History of the Breast (Knopf, $29.95) covers 25,000 years of changing attitudes toward the secondary sexual characteristics of the female of the species. From ample-breasted prehistoric statuettes to Madonna‘s pointedly bellicose bosom, from the Renaissance fixation on the eroticism of the breast to the ’70s feminists’ bra burnings, Yalom’s study tracks our chronic inability to decide: Do breasts represent selfless maternal nurturance or are they treacherous weapons of predatory female seduction? The saga of corsetry, of popular views on breast-feeding, of religious icons and of contemporary women’s health politics makes one realize that the seemingly straightforward breast is a highly complex symbol of the forces that, for centuries, have governed women’s lives.

Jean-Luc Hennig’s The Rear View (Crown, $21) aims somewhat lower. In short chapters with titles like “Curves,” “Libertine,” “Swimsuit,” “Slang,” “Pin-Up” and “Bottom-Watcher,” Hennig borrows from the fields of anthropology, art history, literature, sociology, linguistics—and quotes liberally from vintage pornography—to create this witty, exhaustive overview of the human (and for the most part, female) behind. Less serious, more playful, philosophical, personal—more French—than Yalom, Hennig also locates the history of our culture in an erotically and symbolically charged portion of female flesh.

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