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24Jul

Through the Looking Glasses by Travis Elborough review – the spectacular life of spectacles

From Henry VIII on his charger to the sex symbol Michael Caine, this close-up history of glasses illuminates their special kind of cool

It turns out that all those stereotypes about people who wear glasses being clever, clumsy and a bit standoffish have their basis in something solid. During the dark ages, when everyone was blundering around with uncorrected vision, the myopes were rotten at finding their place in the world. Literally, they set off on the wrong path, never noticed when a wolf was waiting to pounce and were apt to lunge their sword at the wrong person. This put them at a distinct disadvantage. Not being able to lead the boar hunt, or failing to bow to a nobleman from the other side of the great hall, marked you out as an oik. The safest place was in the library where you could spend your days effortlessly scanning pages of monkish swirl and even having a go at adding some of your own. From then on, swottery and short-sightedness were soldered together in the cultural imagination.

Even once myopes started acquiring glasses during the late medieval period, many of these functional deficits remained. As soon becomes apparent in Travis Elborough’s brilliantly enjoyable survey on eyewear, short-sighted people didn’t suddenly acquire glasses and start morphing into party people and hawk-eyed hunters. Early glasses were beta-ish in the extreme, nothing more than a couple of bottle-thick lenses haphazardly tacked together with leather string or, if you were feeling fancy, gold wire. No one had yet noticed how useful ears could be and so, instead of having side arms, lenses were more likely to be attached to a band around the head or stuck on a stick and held up as a lorgnette. The first made you look like a doctor from a Leo Cullum New Yorker cartoon, the second like an effete French aristo about to have their head chopped off.

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