Date finished: March 2nd 2016
In recent years there has been something of a renaissance in popular medical writing. Between the writings of such authors as Atul Gawande, Henry Marsh and Paul Kalanithi – amongst others – it is possible for the general public to gain an insight into both the medical knowledge, physical stamina and emotional strength required to work in the field of medicine. And this is greatly important – the more we understand the intricacies of our medical systems, the more we can support them an informed way, socially and politically.
Adventures in Human Being is one such recent book – a rather charming and gentle work on the fragility of the human body. Set out in the form of essays exploring aspects of each major component of the body – journeying from the head to the feet – Francis engages in his subject with a reverence and emotional depth that can sometimes feel lacking in other, overly-serious works.
That’s not to say that Francis isn’t scientific. It’s just that he communicates the intricacies of medicine in a compelling way that’s understandable to the layman, often delving into the history, philosophy, art, biography, etymology and literature associated with medicine and the human body with palpable enthusiasm. What other book on medicine would or even could make Borges’ writings of his blindness, Da Vinci’s fascination with the facial muscles, and the accuracy of fight scenes in Homerian epics central themes of essays on modern medicine?
Adventures in Human Being isn’t an all-encompassing work on medicine. Most essays focus on one fault of an organ as embodied in the case of a single patient. Neither is it a love-letter to modern medicine: Francis shows respect for cures as controversial as electroshock therapy and as simple as the Epley manouevre for curing vertigo (which amounts to twisting your head about in a controlled manner).
This is a book that lives up to its title. Though it journeys the human body through the eyes and experiences of a physician, Adventures in Human Being is first and foremost a celebration of the way in which our human bodies have defined both our lives and our culture. This is the place where science and art meet, and it’s a very enjoyable place to be too.