Wellcome Book Prize 10th Anniversary Blog Tour: Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks (2010)

“Launched in 2009, the Wellcome Book Prize, worth £30,000, celebrates the best new books that engage with an aspect of medicine, health or illness, showcasing the breadth and depth of our encounters with medicine through exceptional works of fiction and non-fiction.” I was delighted to be asked to participate in the official Wellcome Book Prize 10th anniversary blog tour. For this stop on the tour I’m highlighting a shortlisted title from 2010, a very strong year. The winning book, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, along with Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, turned me on to health-themed reading and remains one of my most memorable reads of the past decade.

 

Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing by Tim Parks

Tim Parks, an Englishman, has lived and worked in Italy for over 30 years. He teaches translation at the university in Milan, and is also a novelist and a frequent newspaper columnist on literary topics. Starting in his forties, Parks was plagued by urinary problems and abdominal pain. Each night he had to get up five or six times to urinate, and when he didn’t have fiery pangs shooting through his pelvic area he had a dull ache. Doctors assessed his prostate and bladder in tests that seemed more like torture sessions, but ultimately found nothing wrong. While he was relieved that his worst fears of cancer were allayed, he was left with a dilemma: constant, unexplained discomfort and no medical strategy for treating it.

When conventional medicine failed him, Parks asked himself probing questions: Had he in some way brought this pain on himself through his restless, uptight and pessimistic ways? Had he ever made peace with his minister father’s evangelical Christianity after leaving it for a life based on reason? Was his obsession with transmuting experience into words keeping him from living authentically? During a translation conference in Delhi, he consulted an ayurvedic doctor on a whim and heard words that haunted him: “This is a problem you will never get over, Mr Parks, until you confront the profound contradiction in your character.”

The good news is: some things helped. One was the book A Headache in the Pelvis, which teaches a paradoxical relaxation technique that Parks used for up to an hour a day, lying on a yoga mat in his study. Another was exercise, especially running and kayaking – a way of challenging himself and seeking thrills in a controlled manner. He also started shiatsu therapy. And finally, Vipassana meditation retreats helped him shift his focus off the mind’s experience of pain and onto bodily wholeness. Vipassana is all about “seeing things as they really are,” so the retreats were for him a “showdown with this tangled self” and a chance to face the inevitability of death. Considering he couldn’t take notes at the time, I was impressed by the level of detail with which Parks describes his breakthroughs during meditation.

Though I was uneasy reading about a middle-aged man’s plumbing issues and didn’t always follow the author on his digressions into literary history (Coleridge et al.), I found this to be an absorbing and surprising quest narrative. If not with the particulars, I could sympathize with the broader strokes of Parks’s self-interrogation. He wonders whether sitting at a desk, tense and with poor posture, and wandering around with eyes on the ground and mind on knots of words for years contributed to his medical crisis. Borrowing the title phrase from T.S. Eliot, he’s charted an unlikely journey towards mindfulness in a thorough, bracingly honest, and diverting book that won’t put off those suspicious of New Age woo-woo.

My rating:

With thanks to Midas PR for the free copy for review.

 

Wellcome Book Prize 2010

Winner: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Shortlist: Angel of Death by Gareth Williams; Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson; So Much for That by Lionel Shriver; Medic by John Nicols and Tony Rennell; Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks

Judges: Comedy writer and television presenter Clive Anderson (chair); novelist and academic Maggie Gee; academic and writer Michael Neve; television presenter and author Alice Roberts; academic and writer A.C. Grayling

  

 


The 2019 Wellcome Book Prize longlist will be announced in February. I’m already looking forward to it, of course, and I’m planning to run a shadow panel once again.

Elif Shafak, award-winning author, is the chair of this year’s judges and is joined on the panel by Kevin Fong, consultant anaesthetist at University College London Hospitals; Viv Groskop, writer, broadcaster and stand-up comedian; Jon Day, writer, critic, and academic; and Rick Edwards, broadcaster and author.

 

See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon as part of the Wellcome Book Prize 10th anniversary blog tour.

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12 thoughts on “Wellcome Book Prize 10th Anniversary Blog Tour: Teach Us to Sit Still by Tim Parks (2010)

    1. I can understand that. Of course I liked the general medical and mind/body themes of this one, but maybe not all the specifics. I’ve read one of his Italian travel books, on train travel. He also has a bunch of novels out, but I don’t know much about them. I really enjoyed his 2014 essay collection Where I’m Reading From.

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  1. “Though I was uneasy reading about a middle-aged man’s plumbing issues” – I loved this sentence! You read so much horrific and detailed medical stuff that it made me smile (sorry!). I have one of his books somewhere in the house, I think. Not a great recommendation from me. I wouldn’t fancy reading about his urinary issues, either!

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    1. From this shortlist I’d read the Skloot, and the Henderson and Shriver novels. (It’s probably my favourite of Shriver’s books that I’ve read.) I fancied trying something new from the list. This is a fairly unusual one for the Wellcome, I guess, though it reminds me of a couple other medical books I’ve read/am reading: Heal Me by Julia Buckley and Get Well Soon by Nick Duerden.

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  2. Before I read Teach Us to Sit Still I’d assumed Parks had a gambling problem, a huge alimony bill or some other desparate financial problem such was his seemingly unstoppable output of fiction, non-fiction journalism and translation but it seemed he was in the grips of an inability to stop and be quiet.

    I loved both the Skloot and the Mukherjee. Thanks for reminding me how interesting the Wellcome Prize list often is!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One does wonder how some people produce so much! (Joyce Carol Oates also comes to mind.) Tiny comments he’d heard from people through his life pop up in the book: “You’re the least able to relax of any person I’ve ever met”; “For God’s sake stand up straight!”, etc. It made me wonder about my posture and how tense I am. My output is nothing like his, but I am deskbound much of the time.

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  3. I read an extract from Teach Us To Sit Still as part of the Vintage Minis series (I think it was published under the name “Calm”), and was rather impressed with his self-deprecation and willingness to try things – plus the personal journey from evangelical upbringing to life of pure reason was intriguing. I might well read the whole book, on the strength of your review!

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    1. Ah, I had it in mind that you’d read this, but couldn’t find your review on Goodreads. That explains it! I think you might well enjoy the whole thing, provided you’re not too squeamish re: the urinary stuff.

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