When it comes to thinking about our bodies—well, we don’t know exactly what to think. Whether we’re being bombarded with advertisements featuring crazy-thin models, groaning through the third Cialis commercial in a row, or discovering fresh ways the devices we use every day can slowly kill us, we have to contemplate our bodies in new ways every day.
Not everyone has the unique viewpoint on the human body that Gavin Francis presents in his new book, Adventures in Human Being: A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum (Basic Books, October 13). The collection of short stories features personal anecdotes from his time as a surgeon, family physician and ER specialist. Each story is meant to help us explore our intimate relationships with the human body—something that many of us don’t fully understand. Francis also gracefully integrates elements of philosophy, medical history and literature to add a contemplative element to what is an already mesmerizing book. He writes from a medical perspective without being pretentious, and his simple yet highly descriptive prose beautifully communicates the science and drama bound up in the human form.
Adventures in Human Being travels limb-by-limb, delivering stories, history and perspective on each section of the body. It’s an interesting editorial choice for Francis, who tells the reader that his childhood dream was to be a geographer. In many ways, this book is a conceptual map of the human body, delivering emotional stories about patients struggling with illness juxtaposed with the history, culture and philosophy behind those illnesses. The writing transitions between different ideas so seamlessly that, when reading the chapter about the wrist, for instance, you’ll find yourself thinking about domestic abuse, self-harm and crucifixion. It reads naturally, scientifically and personally all at once.
Francis also addresses some of the realities of being a doctor, like the clinical natures of hospitals (which he describes as mall-like) and the many ways patients manifest their embarrassment about their bodies. He doesn’t shy away from including himself within his examination of what it is to be human, and that’s one of the most refreshing things about this collection of stories.
If you’re looking for a new way to think about your sense of self, the honest and engrossing Adventures in Human Being is a good way to gain some perspective. You’ll gain a greater appreciation for the health of others, and for the magnificent, flawed and complicated machine in which you live.
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