Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Read Harder Challenge: Solar System, Professor and the Madman, Lives They Left Behind

Reviews by Ambrea

I have three more books to add to my list for the Read Harder Challenge:

1.      Read a nonfiction book about science.
2.      Read a book originally published in the decade you were born.
3.      Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness.

First on my list is How to Read the Solar System:  A Guide to the Stars and Planets by Chris North and Paul Abel, who host The Sky at Night on BBC.  I’m actually really glad I finished this book, because it offered me insight into the solar system that I simply didn’t have prior to reading North and Abel’s collaborative book.  While it is a bit dry and quite dense, I should point out that How to Read the Solar System is not a bad book.

I mean, I was sometimes very bored with the book when the authors went into great detail about how amateur astronomers should find a specific location in space—like how to find a particular moon by Jupiter, or which filter to use in order to observe the sun (helpful, if I understood where one might find such filters.  Or if my telescope worked properly), or pinpointing the exact degree to which one might adjust a telescope to find Venus—and I found myself losing interest.  Quickly.

I’m not saying it wasn’t a good book.  I learned something interesting about each of the planets and all the different heavenly bodies that inhabit space, which was an important aspect of reading this book.  For instance, I learned that Io, one of Jupiter’s many moons, has tectonic activity (specifically cryovolcanic activity, since it’s an icy wasteland); sound waves travel faster through plasma, which gives scientists the opportunity to measure the internal activity of the sun (since it’s made up of plasma); and meteor showers are essentially the debris left behind by comets, like a dust storm that the Earth passes through during its orbit.

I enjoyed actually learning something new, even if it’s not quite as useful as one might hope.  Like I said, it’s not a bad book.  Just a little dry and dense and, dare I say it, pedantic.  It’s not something I would read twice, but it’s a vast well of information that’s sure to hold appeal for readers who greatly enjoy science, astronomy, technology, and even mathematics.  It’s definitely worth checking out, especially if you’re curious about the solar system and the explorations humankind has made.  More importantly, it gets points in my book for having an index, so I was able to easily look up the most intriguing bits of information.

Next, I looked at The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester, which was more in line with my purview.  Titled The Surgeon of Crowthorne when it was originally published in Britain, Winchester’s book underwent a slight change when it migrated over to the United States, becoming The Professor and the Madman—which was accompanied by the glorious subtitle, A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.  I mean, how could I not be the tiniest bit enticed?

The Professor and the Madman is a story about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (otherwise known as the OED), specifically one of the most prolific contributors in its history:  Dr. William Chester Minor.  Minor was a surgeon during the American Civil War, who traveled to England and, eventually, found himself convicted of murder and put into a sanitarium; however, during his stint at Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, he stumbled across a call for contributors to the OED.  After contacting Professor James Murray, who oversaw the entire project, he began to offer definitions, quotations, and etymology slips for the OED.  He send thousands of paper slips to Oxford, before his death in 1920, and he quickly became one of their most productive contributors.

As crazy as it might seem, it’s all very true.

Like Eric Larson—who has written Devil in the White City, Dead Wake, and Thunderstruck—Winchester has a narrative quality to his work that makes it appealing without compromising the facts of history.  Winchester pulls from a variety of resources, including medical documents from Broadmoor, correspondence between Professor Murray and Dr. Minor and others involved in the OED, as well as several historical texts.  He uses information to benefit the story, supplying an electrifying narrative while, simultaneously, feeding its readers the true and unaltered facts.  It’s all very, very good, and I highly recommend it.

As for my final book, I read The Lives They Left Behind:  Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny.  Although I suspect this final category, which recommends reading a book with a main character who has a mental illness, is referring to a fictional novel rather than a nonfiction narrative, I decided to run with ambiguous wording and read something not about one character with a mental illness, but ten.

The Lives They Left Behind explores the lives of Willard State Hospital patients who were admitted to the hospital during the late 19th and 20th centuries.  Penney and Stastny provide an in-depth look at some of the permanent residents at Willard, as well as offer a glimpse at the big picture of mental/psychiatric care during its most formative years.  The book also provides photographs and illustrations that further illuminate the care patients received, and what sort of trials they went through with their mental illness—or perceived mental illness.

Altogether, I found it to be a fascinating book.  It’s an examination of psychiatric care that provides history and statistics, which can prove to be a bit dull, but it also connects on an emotional level and delivers nuggets of truth that are sometimes like a punch in the gut.  It’s a tough read sometimes.  For instance, I had a hard time reading about the electroshock therapy that often caused patients to have convulsions, or the medications which were prescribed that often did more harm than good—or, worse, how some patients were treated even if they didn’t suffer from a psychiatric disease.

Patients, like Ethel Smalls or Margaret Dunleavy, were most likely suffering from other conditions rather than a mental disorder.  Ethel Smalls likely suffered from PTSD after losing her children and spending years on the receiving end of her husband’s temper, enduring years of abuse that left her in a fragile state.  Likewise, Margaret Dunleavy was hospitalized after an uncharacteristic outburst due to a personal tragedy and chronic, debilitating pain.  Neither woman displayed the usual characteristics of a mental disorder, rather they were hospitalized because they were inconvenient.  It’s a heartbreaking fact that gives the book an undercurrent of tragedy that shocked me.

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