SIRI HUSTVEDT (Author, right)
Jess here. Lately I have been drawn to reading books about how humans of all kinds attempt to live satisfying lives within dominant cultures – and how that culture informs our choices and options as people.
I hadn’t realized I was reading so much in an Existential vein until I scanned the titles of these wonderful books and reflected on my attraction to their themes:
– Being Mortal by Atun Gwande considers the way we die, the limitations of our choices are around death in Western Society (in comparison to others, for eg Eastern) and what makes a good death.
– Thinking in Pictures by the remarkable Autistic Temple Grandin explores the way she has accepted the challenges of social assimilation to create a life not just ordinary, but extraordinary. Some describe her as Savant and she has made a career of creating architectural and calming cattle chutes which, being a visual thinker, she is able to design and draw with astonishing accuracy freehand. Perhaps unusually, Grandin is able to describe the differences between her thoughts and feelings and those with neurotypical processing – I particularly enjoyed her analogy of memory as being like a stack of videotapes from which she selects and ‘plays’ in her mind, in order to supply context to experience.
– Neurotribes by Steve Silverman is an extraordinary affecting and accessible exploration of the history of Autism or ASD conditions, as they are now known. Vast and clear, it uses a journalistic voice to seamlessly meld the worlds of science, history and medicine across the vissicitudes of the Austistic experience and its cultural reception, arriving at a point in which it is possible to imagine a world in which neurological processing/thinking differences are considered simply that –accommodated and recognized as worthwhile and wonderful in so many ways. Without differences between us and environments in which these may flourish, argue both Silveraman and Grandin, we would not have the scientific, artistic and technological breakthroughs that make our world great – I couldn’t put it down.
– Do No Harm by the ‘cantankerous’ Surgeon Henry Marsh considers the everyday choices faced and made by doctors weighing up the pros and cons of surgery for patients in grey areas, such as operating on someone with a life limiting condition. A searingly honest portrayal by a Doctor for whom a day’s work routinely involves life and death decisions, Marsh raises profoundly important questions such as whether quantity of life can ever be better than quality, or vice versa and who best makes this judgment, if not the patient themselves? Medicine is a moral an ethical minefield. For eg, in a world of budget cuts, who gets the care?
Finally, The Shaking Woman by Siri Hudsvet (pictured above) investigates the curious and often unfathomable relationship between Body and Mind as she explores her experience of a ‘shaking’ syndrome no doctor can diagnose. In an impressive synthesis of the personal and philosophical, experiential and Neuro-scientific, historic and prosaic, Hudsvet is able to take the reader on a journey into not just her own situation but a broader polemic; could it be that the body introjects not just one’s own experience on a cellular level (something science is increasingly driven toward understanding) but that of our ancestors, relatives, time, place and culture itself?