Wednesday, September 13, 2006

I always feel ethically low

when I dip my toes into the negative reviewing business, especially when I'm just passing on someone else's, and yet these paragraphs are so scathing that I can't resist a cut-and-paste (the piece is by Druin Burch at the TLS). First of all Burch praises a quite wonderful-sounding book, David Wootton's Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates--I am totally getting this one, it sounds just the kind of book I like in any case but I've also been reading books by and about 'Hippocrates' recently because he is the big exponent in the ancient world of culture-coming-nature-by-way-of-inheritance-of-acquired-characters, which is the topic of a brief coda to my academic book.

Then Burch segues into two absolutely devastating paragraphs about another book; I realize this will seem cowardly, more stoical or more sensitive folks than I will say that either I shouldn't paste this in at all or else I should have the courage of my convictions and name names, but the main thing that I think should not be inflicted on the modern author (who no matter how impeccable her character may be is unlikely to resist the temptation to Google her brand-new book) is the thing of having her day ruined when the top search results lead her to an evil negative review. I have taken out the identifying information, in other words, so that it will not be looming needlessly large in future searches (such is etiquette in the age of Google).

Anyway, here goes, it's the memoir of a newly trained neurologist, and this is Burch's transition from Wootton to the second book under review:

------ -------'s -------- makes a stimulating change from all this compelling originality and provocative thoughtfulness. If you have ever suspected that pushing a finger into the soft goo of another person’s brain leads to fresh and startling conclusions about human life, this is the book to disillusion you. ------ is full of breathless enthusiasm; so full of it, unfortunately, that other qualities are kept at bay. She wants to tell you about her life as a neurosurgeon, and her best point is her infectious eagerness. The style is reminiscent of a teenage essay on “what I did during my neurosurgical training”, and the insights are at roughly the same level. She reveals that sick patients are people too, “not just a collection of clinical data”; she lets us into the fact that “life is not a dress rehearsal”, and that “you can’t judge a person’s intelligence by his outward appearance”.

Initially it’s hard to pin down exactly why her thoughtless and clich├ęd anecdotes are so insufferable. Blind adoration is appealing in its way, but ------ seems to worship even the most stupid and destructive aspects of the American hospital system. Teaching by humiliation, pointlessly long hours and the infliction of needless operations on damaged patients are all held up for praise. But the source of the real chill gradually becomes apparent. It is ------’s conviction of her own superiority, and her misguided overestimation of her dull, workplace thoughts. At the end of ----------, she invites us to marvel with her at the superlative intelligence of a group of her colleagues. “What might be accomplished”, she asks, awed at the qualities of people like herself, “if the same group lent some of their collective brain power to, say, improving public education or homeland security?” Both books demonstrate the dangers of doctors who think too much of themselves.

Oh dear.

I have "neurologist" near the top of my fantasy list of alternate careers (when I was a young person, these included pastry chef and hairdresser, but really a more plausible account is more like epidemiologist-neurologist-primate researcher--hmmm, can't think of any more...), but at some point I realized that it is more that I want to write a book about the brain than that I'd actually be especially well suited to, you know, poking around in people's actual brains. I do really and seriously want to write a book about the brain, but as with many other conjectural writing projects, the relevant qualifier is "not quite yet."

1 comment:

  1. This post brings two things to mind: one is that great Margaret Atwood line about how tired she is of brain surgeons who say "after I retire from medicine, I'm going to write." Her temptation is to respond, "When I retire from writing, I'm going to be a brain surgeon."

    But also, earlier today, I was actually teaching George Eliot's 1856 essay, "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" in which she is extremely critical of popular women's novels, and my students often feel that she is being too hard on her fellow female writers. The essay allows us to discuss the whole ethics/feminism thing in an interesting way.

    -- Rachel Hollander