A Reading Binge: With Thoughts of Nicholas Davies

A Reading Binge: With Thoughts of Nicholas Davies

Clif Cleaveland, MD, MACP
12 June 2005

Some years ago, the late Nicholas Davies, who perished in a 1991 airplane crash on the eve of assuming the Presidency of the American College of Physicians, wrote a short piece for The British Medical Journal on "reading binges." Dr. Davies, an avid reader, highlighted the special pleasures of taking a stack of books on a vacation that was largely unstructured. The books might otherwise go unread amidst the demands of a physician's complex and demanding schedule. Typically these were books whose reviews had especially whetted the literary appetite of the Doctor. His brief essay struck a chord with me such that I plan my vacation readings well in advance rather than picking up assorted paperbacks at my destination. Thus, a vacation may be remembered in terms of books read as well as locale and activities. With the completion of each summer's reading list I remember a special friendship.

I began the assembly of this year's reading list earlier in the spring, using reviews in The New York Times, Washington Post, New York Review of Books and recommendations from fellow-readers.

Six components of a recent literary "binge" of my own stand out.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is a thrilling and poignant introduction to the tragic history of Afghanistan and its people since the fall of the monarchy in the 1970s. I first paid close attention to events in Afghanistan during the years that followed the invasion by Russia. At the time news accounts led me to think of that war as one of many intractable conflicts of the latter twentieth century. I was frankly surprised by Russia's defeat. The notorious and barbaric Taliban eventually seized control of most of the country in the civil war that followed Russia's withdrawal.

The narrative begins in the mid-1970s, during the final years of Afghanistan's monarchy. Amir, a son of a privileged Pashtun, betrays his closest friend, Hassan, the son of a Hazara servant of his family. The Hazara minority of Afghanistan were reviled by all of the other ethnic groups of the nation. Chaos in their homeland force Amir and his father to flee their home. They eventually join a community of similarly dislocated Afghanis in California. Years later, Amir travels to Pakistan in response to the summons of a revered, family friend. From Pakistan he journeys to Kabul to rescue Sohrab, the son of Hassan, from the clutches of a psychopath who had earlier terrorized Amir.

In the course of the novel we see the chaos and cruelty spawned by the Taliban as they suppress any dissenters and publicly execute any violators of their rigid Islamic law. We feel the despair of refugees in Pakistan and the uncertainty and sometime resignation of Afghanis who try to make a new home in the United States.

Saturday by Ian McEwan follows its neurosurgeon protagonist for twenty-four hours. Early in the day the doctor is accosted by a trio of thugs following a minor automobile accident. The doctor humiliates the leader of the gang by calling attention to neurological symptoms that herald the leader's coming disability and death. The doctor escapes to resume a day of squash games, a visit to his demented mother in a nursing home, and a musical performance by his guitar-playing son. Reminiscences and reflections of his life and surgical experience recur.

A reunion of the surgeon, his wife, son, daughter, and father-in-law is suddenly interrupted by the invasion of the home by two of the gangsters from earlier in the day. The nightmare has a surprising denouement that involves the poem, "Dover Beach," by Matthew Arnold.

Previously, I had enjoyed McEwan's novels Amsterdam and Atonement, including the latter on my list of favorite war novels. Saturday provides unique insights into how physicians think and function outside their professional turf and how a medical career influences the lives of other family members.

I added Kobo Abe's 1964 novel, The Woman in the Dunes, because I had read and heard so many references to it over the years. A teacher and amateur entomologist wanders into a strange village at the seashore. He is placed in the bottom of a deep pit in the sand dunes in the company of a young woman. Each day the pair must shovel away the sand that inexorably trickles into the hole. Nameless forces dictate the conditions of their daily drudgery. The man succeeds in escaping only to become entrapped in the sand. He is once again lowered into captivity. This time he devotes his efforts to building a water trap. His companion is hauled away, suffering an extra-uterine pregnancy. The reader does not know if she will survive or return. The man seems indifferent to the possibility of a life outside his sandy hole.

The narrative is compelling throughout. I see the novel as an extended metaphor of a person trapped in a narrow, barren existence by a world ruled by indifferent and inaccessible forces. The individual has no prospect for a personally directed life. At best he or she can try to form a friendship or alliance with another person and try to avoid going crazy. Kafka's The Trial is called to mind. Abe's novel joins another of my lists: books that are impossible to forget.

Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons had been on various to-read lists for years as I encountered repeated mention of the novella in essays on Russian history and the evolution of fiction. My Penguin Classic edition was introduced by an essay, "Fathers and Children," by Isaiah Berlin that in itself is ample reason to purchase the book. Berlin places Turgenev's story firmly in Russian history of the 19th century when that culture stood on the brink of violent revolution. Published in 1862, Fathers and Sons introduces us to Bazarov, a charismatic nihilist whose circle includes Arkady the son of bourgeois landowners. Bazarov has studied medicine. His larger goal is to challenge the foundations of Russia's serf-based social structure. He captures the hearts of all of the women he encounters. He does not know how to handle either romantic or familial feelings. Bazarov anticipates generations of later attackers of the status quo in Europe and the United States. Turgenev's portrait of a society in decline is timeless. His characters, whether uncertain collegians or self-satisfied plantation-owners, ring true. Bazarov's deathbed scene - he dies of gangrene - is unforgettable.

I had intended since its publication in 1997 to read The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. The history of Japan's barbaric conquest in December 1937 had been well-reviewed. Upon sweeping into China's ancient city, Japanese forces began a weeks-long rampage of torture, rape, and murder that wiped out an estimated 300,000 citizens. I was prompted to read Ms. Chang's history upon reading of the author's suicide. I wondered if the burden of what she had uncovered had overwhelmed her.

The events in Nanking call to mind other mass atrocities, from the conquests of Genghis Khan and his Mogul hoards to the Nazi slaughter of European Jews. Ironically, an island of relative safety for Chinese refugees was established in Nanking by a Nazi official.

The research, structure, and narrative flow of Ms. Chang's history are first-rate. A career as a distinguished historian obviously awaited her. Perhaps my further opinion is shaded by knowledge of her tragic fate. There is throughout The Rape of Nanking a sense of personal trauma and loss that deepens the heartache of the story. Ms. Chang, in effect, became one of the victims, one of the survivors of a horror that could no longer be endured. I am reminded of the Italian writer, Primo Levi, who wrote The Periodic Table. Levi survived the Holocaust, including time in a concentration camp, only to take his life decades later. Read the book. Ponder its implications for our present day and its large and small genocides. Mourn a sensitive and gifted author.

Finally, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World by Niall Ferguson provides valuable insight into current events in Africa and Middle- and Far-East. Professor Ferguson holds appointments at Oxford, Harvard, and Stanford so he must accumulate a lot of frequent-flier mileage. He reminds me of the late Harvard historian, Samuel Eliot Morrison, in his ability to present a complex, historical panorama in fine prose and manageable size. I highly recommend his earlier history of World War I entitled The Pity of War. Empire provides fresh perspectives on our own French and Indian War and Revolutionary War. I saw these struggles as part of a larger European conflict. Contemporary tragedy in Africa becomes more understandable in Ferguson's descriptions of how Britain, Belgium, France, and Germany cynically carved up that Continent. Our current challenges in the Middle East derive from the carve-up of that land following World War I.

Empire raises important questions about our own nation's management of our contemporary empire since we are widely acknowledged as the world's only super-power. Perhaps, unchecked power regularly leads to arrogance, to isolation, and to the inability to consider alternatives to policy.

Ferguson concludes: "The American Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously said that Britain had lost an empire but failed to find a role. Perhaps the reality is that the Americans have taken our old role without yet facing the fact that an empire comes with it. The technology of overseas rule may have changed-the Dreadnoughts may have given way to F-15s. But like it or not, and deny it who will, empire is as much a reality today as it was throughout the three hundred years when Britain ruled, and made, the modern world."

GRIL will welcome your summer (or any season) reading lists and commentaries. Please send these to cleaveland@mindspring.com.