Literature Annotations


Bamforth, I., ed.
The Body in the Library


Genre Anthology (Mixed Genres) (418 pp.)
KeywordsAnatomy, Art of Medicine, Caregivers, Communication, Death and Dying, Doctor-Patient Relationship, History of Medicine, History of Science, Human Worth, Medical Advances, Medical Ethics, Medical Mistakes, Physical Examination, Physician Experience, Science, Society, Surgery, Survival, War and Medicine
Summary

The title The Body in the Library suggests medicine (the body) as seen through literary eyes. True enough, this collection of stories, poems, essays, and excerpts from longer works is subtitled "A Literary Anthology of Modern Medicine." However, as Iain Bamforth points out in his introduction, nowadays we are more concerned with "the library in the body" (p. xxiv); that is, we believe the truth of human illness can be found by biochemical tests and positron scans, rather than by storytelling. In this anthology Bamforth uses literature itself to document this change in perspective. Beginning with "The Black Veil" (1836), an early sketch by Charles Dickens, Bamforth recounts the recent history of medicine as seen by poets and writers, many of whom were (and are) physicians themselves.

Part of the anthology consists of material already annotated in this database. This includes stories (e.g. Conan Doyle’s "The Curse of Eve" from Round the Red Lamp, Kafka’s A Country Doctor, and Williams’s Jean Beicke); excerpts from novels (e.g. "The Operation" from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, "The Fever Ward" from Camus’ The Plague, and "Doctor Glas" from Hjalmar Soderberg’s novel, Doctor Glas); and essays (e.g. Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill and John Berger’s "Clerk of Their Records" from A Fortunate Man).

However, most of the selections have not previously been noted in this database, nor do they appear in other recent anthologies. Iain Bamforth has discovered some wonderful "new" material on the medical experience. This includes several poems by the German physician-poet Gottfried Benn (pp. 151-153); and a brief piece by neurologist-writer Alfred Döblin ("My Double," pp. 177-179), in which the physician Döblin and the writer Döblin describe their respective "doubles" in rather detached and negative terms.

Another delight is the series of selections from Miguel Torga’s diary (pp. 256-278); Torga (1907-1995) was a provincial Portuguese medical practitioner for 60 years. Among the other pieces are short excerpts from plays by Georg Buchner, Jules Romains, and Karl Valentin; and poems by Weldon Kees, W. H. Auden, Philip Larkin, Dannie Abse, Robert Pinsky, Miroslav Holub , and Thom Gunn.

Commentary

A publicity blurb for "The Body in the Library" identifies the book as "a unique tour of the history of medicine and its practitioners." The book is unique (or at least unusual) in two ways. The first of these is the editor’s skill in choosing and presenting his material. As noted above, he includes a fair number of "fresh" texts, either unknown or little known in the English-language Literature and Medicine movement. For example, Bamforth indicates that Alfred Döblin is "perhaps the most distinguished doctor-writer of the 20th Century," yet I had never heard of him. (Obviously, I’m speaking for myself here, and not speaking for the Literature and Medicine movement as a whole.)

Bamforth’s use of excerpts is another successful editorial gambit. Thus, the operation scene from Madame Bovary, a description of the fever ward from The Plague, and Marcel Proust’s thoughts on people with neuroses from Swann’s Way become available to the reader.

This anthology is also unusual in its historical perspective. By that I mean the intended goal of demonstrating through literature the movement from the "body in the library" perspective of pre-technological medicine to the "library in the body" perspective of contemporary medicine. In other words, in today’s world disease and illness have been isolated from their context and have BECOME the context in which we isolate specific cellular mechanisms and physiological processes.

PublisherVerso
Edition2003
EditorsIain Bamforth
Place PublishedLondon
Annotated by Coulehan, Jack
Date of Entry 01/19/04
Last Revised 01/28/04