Monday 6 September 2010

Three thoughtful pieces


In my second year at Otago I took a year-long psychology paper, one entire semester of which was devoted to the driest, direst examination of the visual system possible.

The one thing I got out of this course - well, I have to admit, I learned a lot, and 'scotoma' remains a favourite word - but the one thing I treasure out of this course was that I was introduced to Oliver Sacks' writing for the first time. In addition to his collections of case studies, Uncle Tungsten is one of my favourite memoirs. I'm delighted to hear that another collection, The Mind's Eye, is on its way.

So my first thoughtful piece is Steve Silberman's recent interview with Sacks, where Sacks discusses writing, medicine, and his own experience with ocular melanoma:
In my preface to An Anthropologist on Mars, I quoted G.K. Chesterton’s attack on science as a cold, impersonal, Sherlock Holmesian business, whereas his fictional detective, Father Brown, proceeds by a sort of uncanny empathy. I think as a writer, one needs to bring out the passion and the purity of science, the excitement, the beauty, and the fact that science may provide the only way of observing and understanding immense phenomena that lie beyond the unaided senses — the causes of things, things which are below the surface, like atoms.

I hesitate to use the word purity when there have been so many uncomfortable frauds in science. One can feel ideally that science shouldn’t need policing, because there’s much more pleasure in a genuine result than in making anything up. Nothing that one could make up will be as deep and interesting as the reality. Freeman Dyson says something like, “Nature’s imagination is much richer than ours.”


My second thoughtful piece comes from a few months back: Atul Gawande, in the New Yorker, on dying.

I vastly admire Gawande's ability to draw out the strength and vulnerability of both patients and medical practitioners, to move from a single person's situation to a macro-economic one and back again. His essays are always insightful and affecting: this one should be published as a stand-alone edition, a modern manifesto on dying well.


It's a sad but logical segue from my second choice to my third, Aida Edemariam's interview with Terry Pratchett in the Guardian. I rediscovered Pratchett in the past year, after a gap of a decade and a half - the Tiffany Aching series has become a firm new favourite.

Pratchett is living with Alzheimers, and is a vocal advocate of assisted suicide:

He doesn't say it in so many words, but that [grief over losing his parents in recent years] must also be combined with grief for the loss of his ability to write longhand, or type with anything other than one finger at a time (although, weirdly, he is still perfectly able to sign his name — "the bit that knows how to sign my name is an entirely different bit of the brain"); the grief of knowing that while he may have years yet, most of his other mental faculties will go the same way. But probably not suddenly.

"Every day must be a tiny, incrementally . . . incremental . . . incremental . . . – he stumbled over a word; you must write that one down," Pratchett says with a dark, almost-laugh. (Having been a journalist himself, before becoming a PR in the nuclear industry and thence a novelist, he rarely passes up a chance to remind you that he knows how journalists work) ". . . incremental . . . change on the day before. So what is normal? Normal was yesterday. If you lose a leg, one day you're hopping around on one leg, so you know the difference.

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