Smits is a linguist, the editor in chief of the Dutch magazine De Republikein and the author of “The Puzzle of Left-Handedness."
FEW truly insignificant traits receive as much attention as left-handedness. In just the last couple of generations, an orientation once associated with menace has become associated with leadership, creativity, even athletic prowess. Presidents Gerald R. Ford, George Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were born left-handed (as was Ronald Reagan, though he learned to write with his right hand). Folklore has it that southpaws are unusually common in art and architecture schools. Left-handed athletes like Tim Tebow and Randy Johnson are celebrated.
The idea of “correcting” left-handedness, common in the postwar United States, now seems quaint if not barbaric. “My parents understood I was left-handed/and didn’t make me write against the grain/the way so many people their age had to,” Jonathan Galassi writes in “Left-handed,” his new collection of poems.
In some ways, today’s attitudes toward left-handedness are a mirror image of those of the 20th century (perhaps the worst century for left-handers), if not quite a return to the era before 1900, when left-handedness was generally considered uninteresting: an amusing anomaly to many, and an annoyance to teachers and parents. When Raffaello da Montelupo, a 16th-century assistant notary in Florence, wrote a receipt perfectly with his left hand, the notary called in all 10 or so of his employees to watch this miracle in puzzled exhilaration (they had expected mirror script, of the kind Leonardo da Vinci practiced), but that was the end of it....