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From Fish to Philosopher

Smith, Homer

Last Updated: May-17-2018
Annotated by:
Thomas, Shawn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

Most students of biology are well aware of our humble beginnings as puny, single-celled lifeforms. The mechanism of our remarkable transformation was famously described by Charles Darwin in his groundbreaking text On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. In many respects, Darwin’s magnum opus was just the opening chapter of a much broader discussion of how we humans have taken our current form. Darwin elucidated only a general process of adaptation and evolution in the face of environmental pressures. He left his successors with the more onerous task of applying this rule to the tortuous history of human evolution.

Rising to the occasion nearly a full century later was Homer Smith, a prominent kidney physiologist who spent much of his life and career as the Director of Physiological Laboratories at the NYU School of Medicine. Dr. Smith shares his account of our evolutionary history in his 1953 book From Fish to Philosopher. In the book, he posits that organisms must have a system for maintaining a distinct “internal environment” in order to have any sense of freedom from the perennially dynamic external environment. He guides the reader through the various biological filtration devices that have come and gone over the eras, culminating with the fist-sized organs dangling next to our spines.


The book is often billed as a detailed treatise on how modern-day mammalian kidneys have arisen from their more primordial forms – a fair assessment, especially given the author’s background. But this book offers readers something much more ambitious in scope than a rehashing of his work in renal physiology. For example, the first chapter of the book, “Earth”, highlights geological milestones that molded the early environment of the first known lifeforms. In Dr. Smith’s words,

“the history of living organisms has been shaped at every turn by earth’s vicissitudes, because every geologic upheaval, by causing profound changes in the distribution of land and sea, has had profound effects on the climates of both, and hence of the patterns of life in both” (pp. 9).

By the final chapter, “Consciousness”, he has begun to ponder questions of metacognition and learning. He marvels at how our complex nervous system has allowed classical pianists to balance the rigidity required for technical prowess, and the fluidity required for creativity. This is not a textbook about our kidneys. From Fish to Philosopher is a story of mankind’s genesis, told through the existential musings of a physiologist who left no stone unturned.

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Summary:

This is an important contribution that analyzes, critiques, and aims to correct structural inequalities (racism, sexism, capitalism) that influence contemporary medicine, with particular attention to the technical influences of computers, “big data,” and underlying values of neoliberalism, such as individualism, exceptionalism, capacity, and progress through innovation.  

Introduction: Theorizing Communicative Biocapitalism
Banner writes, “biocapitalism is comprised by the new economies and industries that generate value out of parts of human bodies” (p. 12). Parts include DNA, ova, and organs, but there’s also data from medical care, where patients are reduced to their physical bodies and/or to their “digital status” in medical records, research, even personal information volunteered on the Web, all which is indicated by the term “communicative.” As an example, Banner cites the large realm of patient on-line groups that are exploited by large companies as free labor, thus reducing the voice of the patients. Approaches of narrative medicine and medical humanities have not dealt with digital health, market forces, and the implied power relationships. Perhaps the new subfield of health humanities has promise to do so, if not also captive to “the logic of the market” (p. 17).   

Ch. 1. Structural Racism and Practices of Reading in the Medical Humanities
Banner writes, “Medical racism is a product of structural and institutional racism” (p. 25). She finds that current approaches from interpretive reading are insufficient because “the field’s whiteness has contoured its hermeneutics” (p. 25). Instead of the “reading-for-empathy” model, we should read for structures of racism, sexism, privilege, as well as economic and political inequality. She illustrates such reading with texts by Junot Dìaz, Audre Lourde, and Anatole Broyard.  

Ch. 2. The Voice of the Patient in Communicative Biocapitalism
 Patients have flocked to networking websites, voluntarily posting much personal information. Banner analyzes how technocapitalists mine these sites for data to use or sell. Patients’ information, given voluntarily, amounts to free labor and, even, work-arounds for companies that avoid expensive double-blind controlled studies. Rhetoric for these sites speak misleadingly of the “patient voice,” “stakeholder,” or “story sharing” and hide the exploitation involved. The chapter is specific for websites, drugs, and drug companies.  
Banner discusses (1) the “feminized labor” involved with sites for fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome (both “contested diagnoses”) and (2), more abstractly, the medicalization of the clinical gaze on patients who participate in websites and yearn for “an imagined state of purity,” and/or “an ableist vision of norms and reparative medicine” (p. 61). Overall, the digitalized-patient voice is colonized by forces of whiteness and should be decolonized. She discusses writing by Octavia Butler and Linda Hogan, both women of color.

Ch. 3. Capacity and the Productive Subject of Digital Health
This fascinating chapter describes and critiques “digital self-tracking,” or the use of devices such as Fit-Bits that help create and maintain the so-called “Quantified Self” (or “QS”). Banner finds this fad within the tradition of the Enlightenment (Ben Franklin) so that “exact science” may “optimize” individuals by being “responsibilitized” in a “self-sovereign” way. QS users understand that “Everything is data” (p. 83). She argues that this trend emphasizes “masculine objectivity” while “disavowing debility” (p. 85). Collected data may contribute to a “worried well” status or conditions of “precarity” or “misfitting.” She writes, “QS practice remains an inscription of the self as a self-surveillor, engaged in masculinized practices of neoliberal self-management” (p. 91). She discusses the technologies of the devices Scanadu, Melon, and Scarab. She provides and interprets photos of visual arts representations by Laurie Frick, who is a “self-tracker.”  

Ch. 4. Algorithms, the Attention Economy, and the Breast Cancer Narrative
Banner discusses Google Analytics, later Alphabet, which includes Calico and Verily, which have partnered with pharmaceutical companies. Such combinations of algorithms, capitalism, and media aim to capture the public’s attention, especially online. Messaging about breast cancer becomes reductive, emphasizing medical solutions, not prevention, and it avoids discussion of causes such as environmental pollution. Some critics decry “pinkification” of breast cancer. Public stories, such as Angelina Jolie’s, emphasize individual empowerment, a “hegemonic construction of illness”’ (p. 112), and these are amplified by mass media, both print and electronic. More diverse messages would value “heterophily over homophily” (p.121).   

Ch. 5.  Against the Empathy Hypothesis
Drawing on several commentators, Banner critiques the notion of empathy as a goal for caregivers as condescending to the patient and suspect when allied with productivity and efficiency for institutions. Further, the notion of “resilience” (in a “bleed” of neoliberal rhetoric into health humanities) has been misused in applied literature, parallel to notions of self-help and self-management. Some hermeneutics still support values of “state and capitalism” and ignore writers of color. Banner discusses the work of African-American poet Claudia Rankine, some of whose work is “postlyric,” and J. M. W. Turner’s painting “The Slave Ship” that illustrates “necropolitics.”  

Conclusion
Throughout the book Banner illustrates reading “for structure” in her interpretation of texts and visual images but also in medical institutions and practices and, still further, in the enormous and pervasive world of government forms and programs, big data, computers, and beyond. She finds structures of capitalism, sexism, and neoliberalism within existing “heteropatriarchal, ableist, and racist frameworks” (p. 154) despite claims of neutrality. She urges medicine and the humanities to develop new methods. She mentions specific collectives and communities that now challenge such norms (such as Gynepunk and CureTogether), and she calls for thinkers in many disciplines to confront demeaning technology and to “engender spaces in which care is more just, and more humane” (p. 156).      

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Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Summary:

Victorians Undone is no ordinary history book.  If you have ever felt dissatisfied by a sterile biography, wondering if its subject actually possessed bodily functions, look no further.  Here, British historian Kathryn Hughes undoes centuries of sheltering the reader from the unseemly by putting it on full display.  While the very term “Victorian” evokes an image of propriety, it was also a time of population displacement from the country to cities where “other people’s sneezes, bums, elbows, smells, snores, farts and breathy whistles were, quite literally, in your face”  (p. xi). The author seeks to rectify the imbalance by creating a history that puts “mouths, bellies and beards back into the nineteenth century“ (p. xiv), which she hopes will “add something to our understanding of what it meant to be a human animal“ (p. xv) during the Victorian Era.  

The book consists of five essays, each following a part of the body of an historical figure. In the first, entitled “Lady Flora’s Belly,” we learn about the tragic saga of Queen Victoria’s lady-in-waiting.  Did Flora’s protuberant abdomen conceal a tumor or a baby?  It was harder to find out than one might think.  Most women went through their lives without ever exposing their private parts to anyone but their husband.   Medical consultation when unavoidable might be conducted discretely, by post. 
 

Other essays focus on George Eliot’s hands, Fanny Cornforth’s (the lover of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite painter) sensual mouth, and the beard that Charles Darwin’s grew to hide his eczema.  The book concludes with the gruesome tale of the dismemberment of Fanny Adams, an early case study in forensic pathology. The term "Fanny Adams" soon came, in navy slang, to mean unpleasant meat rations.

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Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Weeks after the birth of her child, the writer receives a phone call informing her that her mother, who has gone missing, has hanged herself.  This memoir, like others written in the aftermath of similar trauma, is an effort to make some sense of the mother’s mental illness and horrifying death. Unlike many others, though, it is the story of a family system—and to some extent a medical system—bewildered by an illness that, even if it carried known diagnostic labels, was hard to treat effectively and meaningfully.  The short chapters alternate three kinds of narrative:  in some the writer addresses her mother; in some she recalls scenes from her own childhood, plagued by a range of symptoms and illness, and her gradual awareness of her gifted mother’s pathological imagination; in some she reproduces the transcript of a video production her mother narrated entitled “The Art of Misdiagnosis” about her own and her daughters’ medical histories. Threaded among memories of her early life are those of her very present life with a husband, older children, a new baby, a beloved sister and a father who has also suffered the effects of the mother’s psychosis at close range.  

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Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Summary:

From the late 18th to mid-19th centuries a peculiar trend swept through European fashion. Through couture and cosmetics, this vogue emulated the physical ravages of a much-feared disease, tuberculosis, aestheticizing its symptoms as enviable qualities of physical beauty. Pale skin, stooped posture, white teeth, an emaciated figure, and a white complexion that evinced delicate blue veins were lauded by the era’s posh fashion journals. Carolyn A. Day aptly terms this craze a “tubercular moment,” a cultural phenomenon that elevated the grim realities of physical illness to a plane of desirable beauty. Medical discourses promoting the fragility and refinement of the “sensible” body were inspired by romanticized notions of morbidity, suffering, and illness. These discourses coincided with the the ideologies of Romanticism, a philosophical movement that was popularly understood to be a counter-discourse to the Enlightenment through its emphasis on emotion and imagination. Day cites the English poet, John Keats, whose legacy emphatically contributed to the cult of sensibility, as he embodied a living example of the refined tubercular body endowed with artistic genius but doomed to illness. The male artist was an example of a body too sensitive, too delicate to endure earthly life, but one whose intellect left an indelible imprint on culture.  

The romanticized construction of tuberculosis, however, waned in the 1830s and 1840s due to dominant Victorian views that emphasized the inherent biological weakness of the female body. This shift in rationalizing consumption was the direct result of understanding women as burdened with a surfeit of sensibility. By contrast, consumption was understood differently to be an emasculating illness that denoted male weakness and was therefore no longer popularly considered to be a portent of gifted creativity. During this period, a number of women’s fashions dictated the tastes of the middle and upper classes. Corsets, cosmetics, and the gossamer neoclassical style of dress were used to emulate the frail frames, drooping postures, narrow torsos, and pale complexions of the consumptive body. Thin fabrics, sandals, and hair pieces also contributed to styling the ‘gorgeously’ spectral image of the tubercular body. Dresses were contrived to feature the bony wing-like shoulder blades of the consumptive back, emphasizing an emaciated frame. Physicians and cultural pundits condemned the trappings of this fashionable dress because they were thought to impose health risks. Tight corsets, for example, were considered to harmfully compress the lungs, while diaphanous dresses and sandals exposed women to cold weather. Despite the stentorian warnings of physicians, the tubercular wardrobe continued to house articles that were thought to excite tuberculosis.  


By the 1850s, public health and sanitary reforms reshaped cultural discourses that associated tuberculosis with beauty. Tuberculosis was gradually viewed as a pernicious biological force that needed to be controlled. As a result, the Victorian model of womanhood—the weak and susceptible female body—gave way to a model of health and strength. Literature, as Day points out, contributed significantly to altering the consumptive chic discourse and the link between tuberculosis and ideal femininity. She references Alexandre Dumas fils, whose influential novel, La Dame aux Camélias, presents redemption for moral transgressions through tubercular suffering. Through popular literature, tuberculosis was gradually supplanted from the sphere of upper-class women and placed in association with ‘fallen’ women, an unsavory association that led the genteel public to change perspective. Literary influence was important, but the increased visibility of consumption in the lower classes was likely the most visceral reality that forced upper classes to distance themselves from fashions that beautified the illness.

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The River of Consciousness

Sacks, Oliver

Last Updated: Mar-01-2018

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Two weeks before his death in 2015, Sacks oversaw this collection of essays and charged Kate Edgar, Daniel Frank, and Bill Hayes to arrange its publication. The essays touch on various fields—evolution, botany, chemistry, medicine, neuroscience, and the arts, and focus on major figures such as Darwin, Freud, and William James. The major theme—as indicated by the volume’s title—is how minds (of humans, chimps, even jellyfish) interpret and remember what the senses perceive in normal and in limited states. While we read in the Foreword that “a number” of the pieces originally appeared in The New York Review of Books, there are no citations for dates and places.  

“Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers”: Sacks describes Darwin’s research with flowers that support evolution; flowing plants display qualities of sensitivity to “contact, pressure moisture, chemical gradients, etc” (p. 19). Sacks recalls the pleasures of investigating flowers as a youth in his London garden.  

“Speed” : Drawing on personal experience and a wide variety of anecdotes (including his encephalitic patients described in Awakenings), Sacks muses about mental perceptions, slow and fast, normal and drug-enhanced, dreams, and our ability to imagine “all speeds, all time” (p. 59).  

“Sentience: The Mental Lives of Plants and Worms”: Starting with Darwin and coming forward, Sacks discuss how worms, jellyfish, and even trees may be considered to exhibit “mind.” Near the end, we read, “if one allows that a dog may have consciousness of a significant and individual sort, one has to allow it for an octopus too” (p. 76).  
   
“The Other Road: Freud as Neurologist”: The opening paragraph ably sums up the essay. “Everyone knows Freud as the father of psychoanalysis, but relatively few know about the twenty years (from 1876 to 1896) when he was primarily a neurologist and anatomist; Freud himself rarely referred to them in later life. Yet his neurological life was the precursor to his psychoanalytic one, and perhaps an essential key to it (p. 79).   
   
The next three may be considered as a group because they deal with lapses or outright failures in perception, memory, or health. Because Sacks reports on his own life experience, these are the most personal.
“The Fallibility of Memory” describes Sacks’s memories of the bombing of London in the winter of 1940-41. It turns out that one memory, according to family members, is right, but the other is actually a version of a letter describing a bombing.

The essay continues to discuss such topics as false memories, auto-plagiarism, unconscious plagiarism, and fabulation. He concludes, “Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine” (p. 121). In a short piece, “Mishearings,” Sacks reports how his increasing deafness makes new (and sometimes hilarious) perceptions of spoken words.  

Surely the last written—and in many ways the most poignant—“A General Feeling of Disorder” discusses feelings of being ill. Sacks, at age 81, describes his metastatic liver cancer and, in detail, an arduous treatment. Although warned of weakness and pain, he writes of “a sort of negative orgasm of pain” and other disturbing side effects (pp. 155-59) in vivid detail.  

“The Creative Self” discusses forms of creativity including play, scholarship, unconscious borrowing, and subconscious insight. Sacks is less interested in a Freudian model than an evocation of “an entire hidden, creative self” (p. 144).            

The final two, “The River of Consciousness” and “Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science” deal with theories of how the mind works and, more collectively, how scientific breakthroughs occur. The former essay explores cinematic models for perception in James and Bergson and much later models of the 100 billion neurons of the brain working on networks, coalitions, or populations. He finds that a specific mechanism is unlikely to be found and, “Even the highest powers of art—whether in film or theater, or literary narrative—can only convey the faintest intimation of what human consciousness is really like” (p. 174).

In “Scotoma” (or “memory hole”), he looks at discoveries that were over-looked for many years . Later they were rediscovered as important for understanding various phenomena: Tourette’s syndrome, phantom limbs, and, his specialty, migraines.

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Annotated by:
McClelland, Spencer

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

An extended essay on the experience of child immigrants woven around the forty questions that author Valeria Luiselli asks in her work as a translator for children seeking entry into the United States.

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography

Summary:

The narrator tracks a hypothetical week in the life and work of a psychiatrist in a major Canadian hospital through the stories of individual patients, some of whom were willing to be identified by name.   

The book opens with “they are us” and the shocking discovery that a patient whose life has been ruined by mental illness is a medical school classmate.  

Other patients have been followed for many years—a woman with eating disorder, a man with bipolar disease, another with schizophrenia. A new patient with intractable depression finally agrees to electroshock therapy, and the first treatment is described. The painful duty of making an involuntary admission pales in contrast to the devastation of losing a patient to suicide.  

Goldbloom’s personal life, opinions, and worries are woven throughout with frank honesty. His mother’s metastatic brain tumor sparks the associated intimations of his own advancing age and mortality.  His genuine fascination with and appreciation of the effective modalities now available are matched by his frustration over how they are beyond reach of far too many because of the stigma that is still attached to mental illness and the lack of resources and political will to make them available.

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Summary:

Hillel D. Braude, a physician and a philosopher, has written an important, albeit dense and narrowly circumscribed, study. While “Intuition in Medicine” is the main title, the subtitle, “A Philosophical Defense of Clinical Reasoning” is a more accurate description of the book, which originated as a doctoral dissertation.  While some of the prose will appeal only to specialists, there are important and thoughtful analyses of such topics as Evidence-Based Medicine, modern dehumanized medicine, the relation of beneficence and automony, and principalist ethics in general. Throughout, intuition is narrowly conceived and in the service of clinical reasoning, as it applies to standard, Western physicians and not to other healers (or nurses), and the emphasis is on interventive medicine to cure illness and relieve suffering more than on health promotion.
 
Braude writes in the introduction that intuition has long been understood to be “a direct perception of things,” but he resists a more precise definition: “Rather than defining and using a single concept of intuition—philosophical, practical, or neuroscientific—this study examines intuition as it occurs at different levels and in different contexts of clinical reasoning” (xviii).  Eight chapters explore these different levels in such topics as moral intuitionism, Aristotle’s phronesis (or practical reason), the rise of statistics (a basis for Evidence-Based Medicine), and C. S. Peirce’s notion of abduction. Braude’s careful analysis traces historical and theoretical developments in analytic philosophy and how these may be applied to clinical reasoning.  He uses an impressive range of thinkers: Achenwall, Albert, Allan, Andre, Ashcroft, Aristotle, Bacon, Barrow, Barton, Beauchamp, Bergson, Bernard, Bichat, Black, Bottero, Bourdieu, Brody, Browne—just to take names headed by A or B.  Throughout, Braude puts in dialectic two poles of a spectrum arguing that they both have contributions to make. He believes that between them is an “ethical space,” where discoveries and applications can be made.  One pole, which he clearly favors, includes the following qualities:  Aristotelian practical reasoning, naturalist approaches, primacy of beneficence, fact and value joined, case-based, individual patients, narrative experience, anthropocentric focus, and tacit/organic knowledge (Polanyi). The other pole, less desirable, includes Kantian abstraction, nonnaturalist approaches, primacy of autonomy, fact and value separated, Evidence-Based Medicine, large groups of patients, statistical correlations, mechanist/positivist foci, and Dualism (Descartes).

Braude believes intuition is a cognitive process but has other dimension, the corporeal and the social. While these provide a grounding, intuition for him is generally rational. He also argues for medical care at the personal, face-to-face level, not through applications of algorithms.   A brief conclusion, “Medical Ethics beyond Ontology” clarifies some of the arguments and sketches some valuable notions from Husserl and Levinas. He writes “intuition . . . does appear to be fundamental for human judgment” because “an intuition faculty” can “extract universals from the particular” (p. 170).  Drawing on Husserl, he defines phenomenological intuition as “the primary means through which objects are presented to consciousness.” This affirmation includes the basic human, which is also the focus for medicine. For Levinas (and my summary is much too brief), “interhuman solidarity” is a source for medical care, a form of responsibility that is different from Foucaultian power relationships, ethical rules and priniciples, or “an uncritical acceptance of medical authority” (p. 177).

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Leonardo da Vinci

Isaacson, Walter

Last Updated: Jan-09-2018
Annotated by:
Thomas, Shawn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

Leonardo da Vinci – the name alone evokes images of an artistic virtuoso, the Renaissance man, the mind behind the Mona Lisa. Though known best as an artist, his work extended beyond paintings into a myriad of disciplines, with notebook entries documenting his studies of optics, bird flight, comparative anatomy, hydraulics, and countless others. And yet what has been obscured by the shadow cast by his prolific career are the details of how a young man from a town called Vinci became Leonardo da Vinci. What did he do every day? What did he eat? Who were his friends? Did he even have any? We tend to immortalize Leonardo as a god, and yet he was human after all, not unlike the rest of us. This realization should encourage us to study one of history’s most celebrated humans, and see if we ourselves might be able unlock our own inner genius.

Walter Isaacson aids us in this study with his thoroughly researched biography of Leonardo da Vinci. He adds this to his growing portfolio of biographies of history’s great minds, including Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs. In this most recent biography, Isaacson takes us through the life and times of Leonardo, highlighting milestones of his career, while also underscoring some of the seemingly trivial habits that were signatures of Leonardo’s personality and worldview.

Born of illegitimacy and openly gay, Leonardo was no stranger to defying convention. In fact, many of his grandest discoveries were a result of his willingness to challenge commonly accepted wisdom. Yet his greatest asset was his relentless curiosity and unquenchable thirst for knowledge, a recurring theme of Isaacson’s biography and of Leonardo’s life. Intertwined with this curiosity was his tendency to draw connections across disciplines, blurring the lines between art and science. Everything that Leonardo produced – whether his sketches of war machines, his treatises on anatomy, or his timeless portraits – was a manifestation of his desire for unifying knowledge.

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