On Christmas morning, I opened a gift from my husband and found Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus. Later, I opened another package from my grandparents’ that contained The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Earlier this year I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. As you can probably see, a pattern is emerging— I’ve apparently developed a taste for medical literature.
Now when left to my own devices—in other words when I’m not reading for a class—my reading selection tends to wander. After reading magical realism for a while I’ll shift to nineteenth century Russian literature, then I’ll devour graphic novels, and finally turn to fairy tales. The fact that I’m reading books dealing with disease should not be surprising. However, before this year science books have been oddly absent from my reading list.
Now this is not because I’m disinterested in science, I love watching documentaries on PBS and reading articles from magazines. The reason I’ve unjustly ignored science books is that I associate them with textbooks. It doesn’t matter how interesting the facts are, when the writing is dull I have a hard time getting through all those pages, and few science books are marketed as having lovely prose or a gripping story arc.
Thankfully, I came across The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks earlier this year. Yes, the book is about the science of cancer, how cells are grown for medical testing and patient rights, all of which doesn’t suggest a gripping tale, but it also about a woman who died of cancer, the family she left behind, and even the author’s own quest to find out who was the person that these HeLa cell were taken from, and that is riveting stuff. While I enjoy finding out about science and history, it was this family’s story and the obstacles that they faced because of poverty and race that really interested me and got me through the book.
I started reading Rabid on Christmas and finished it two days later. While I was interested in the titular subject, I was worried that this book would lose my interest, because there was no one to follow all the way through it. The opening of book reassured me, with the first line “Ours is a domesticated age,” followed by a list of news items about animals, seemingly possessed, attacking people, which ends with “The agent of all these acts of possession is, of course, a virus.” That is damn good writing, and throughout the book the prose is tight and even poetic. In some ways, the rabies virus becomes a character—a mysterious unstoppable force that brings the wilderness into our homes and turns humans into something animals like, which eventually becomes a preventable disease that is rare in wealthy countries and even a tool in science laboratories. While following this disease the authors are able to talk about not just science, but history, myth, language, pop culture and people.
Perhaps the reason I’ve developed such an interest in these books is because they provide a single line to follow through confusing histories. It seems that we talk about history in categories—here is a list of battles and names of generals and kings, here is a list of scientific developments, here is a list of folk beliefs and practices. It does not seem that there is much cross over. Yet these two books allow you to cross through categories and show how they relate. What possible connection could the Iliad, Saint Herbert, Vampires, lap dogs and Louis Pasteur share—a surprisingly terrifying one. The economics of medical laboratories seems to belong to a completely different world than that of a death of one woman and her surviving family, but they are not. It is dangerous to forget how these things connect and rely on each other.
Perhaps this just reveals my own tastes. As much as fact can interest me, what holds my attention are people, stories, and of course a well turned phrase. While I have yet to start The Emperor of All Maladies and can’t really judge it yet, all that I’ve heard about this book has been good. I look forward to seeing what surprising places it takes me and, hopefully, discovering books I would have overlooked otherwise.