Ed Yong is a London-based science writer for The Atlantic and is part of National Geographic’s blogging network. I had trouble believing that I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes within Us and a Grander View of Life is his first book; it’s so fluent and engaging that it immediately draws you into the microbial world and keeps you marveling at its strange yet fascinating workings. Yong writes like a journalist rather than a scientist, and that’s a good thing: with an eye to the average reader, he uses a variety of examples and metaphors, intersperses personal anecdotes of visiting researchers at their labs or in the field, and is careful to recap important facts in a lucid way.
The book opens with a visit to San Diego Zoo (see the exclusive extract following my review), where we meet Baba the pangolin. But “Baba is not just a pangolin. He is also a teeming mass of microbes,” Yong explains. “Some of them live inside him, mostly in his gut. Others live on the surface of his face, belly, paws, claws, and scales.” Believe it or not, but we are roughly half and half human cells and microbial cells, making each of us – like all creatures – more of an ecosystem (another term is “holobiont”) than a single entity.
Microbes vary between species but also within species, so each individual’s microbiome in some ways reflects a unique mixture of genes and experiences. This is why people’s underarms smell subtly different, and how hyenas use their scent glands to convey messages. The microbiome may well be tailored to different creatures’ functions, so researchers at San Diego Zoo are testing swabs from their animals to see if there could be discernible signatures for burrowing or flying activities, or for disease. I was struck by the breadth of species considered here: not just mammals, but also invertebrates like beetles, cicadas, and squid – my entomologist husband would surely be proud. The “Us” in the subtitle is thus used very inclusively to speak of the way that microbes live in symbiosis with all living things.
If I were to boil down Yong’s book to one message, it’s that microbes are not simply “bad” or “good” but have different roles depending on the context and the host. You can hardly dismiss all bacteria as germs that must be eradicated when there are thousands of benign species in your gut (versus fewer than 100 kinds that cause infectious diseases). If it weren’t for the microbes passed on to us at birth, we wouldn’t be able to digest the complex sugars in our mothers’ milk. Other creatures rely on bacteria to help them develop to adulthood, like the tube worms that thrive on Navy ship hulls at Pearl Harbor.
Yet Yong feels too little attention is given to beneficial microbes, and in many cases we continue the campaign to rid ourselves of them through overuse of antibiotics and taking cleanliness to unhelpful extremes. “We have been tilting at microbes for too long, and created a world that’s hostile to the ones we need,” he asserts.
The book is full of lines like that one that combine a nice turn of phrase and a clever literary allusion. In the title alone, after all, you have references to Walt Whitman (“I contain multitudes” is from his “Song of Myself”) and Charles Darwin (“there is grandeur in this view of life” is part of the closing sentence in his On the Origin of Species). Yong also sets up helpful analogies, comparing the immune system to a thermostat and antibiotics to “shock-and-awe weapons … like nuking a city to deal with a rat.”
History and future are also brought together very effectively, with the narrative looking backwards to Leeuwenhoek’s early microscope work and Pasteur and Koch’s germ theory, but also forwards to the prospects that current research into microbes might enable: eliminating elephantiasis, protecting frogs from deadly fungi via probiotics in the soil, fecal microbiota transplants to cure C. diff infections, and so on.
The possibilities seem endless, and this is a book that will keep you shaking your head in amazement. I’d liken Yong’s style to David Quammen’s or Rebecca Skloot’s. His clear and intriguing science writing succeeds in inspiring wonder at the natural world and at the bodies that carry us through it.
With thanks to Joe Pickering at The Bodley Head for the review copy.
An exclusive extract from “PROLOGUE: A TRIP TO THE ZOO”
I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong
(The Bodley Head)
All of us have an abundant microscopic menagerie, collectively known as the microbiota or microbiome.1 They live on our surface, inside our bodies, and sometimes inside our very cells. The vast majority of them are bacteria, but there are also other tiny organisms including fungi (such as yeasts) and archaea, a mysterious group that we will meet again later. There are viruses too, in unfathomable numbers – a virome that infects all the other microbes and occasionally the host’s cells. We can’t see any of these minuscule specks. But if our own cells were to mysteriously disappear, they would perhaps be detectable as a ghostly microbial shimmer, outlining a now-vanished animal core.2
In some cases, the missing cells would barely be noticeable. Sponges are among the simplest of animals, with static bodies never more than a few cells thick, and they are also home to a thriving microbiome.3 Sometimes, if you look at a sponge under a microscope, you will barely be able to see the animal for the microbes that cover it. The even simpler placozoans are little more than oozing mats of cells; they look like amoebae but they are animals like us, and they also have microbial partners. Ants live in colonies that can number in their millions, but every single ant is a colony unto itself. A polar bear, trundling solo through the Arctic, with nothing but ice in all directions, is completely surrounded. Bar-headed geese carry microbes over the Himalayas, while elephant seals take them into the deepest oceans. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon, they were also taking giant steps for microbe-kind.
When Orson Welles said ‘We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone’, he was mistaken. Even when we are alone, we are never alone. We exist in symbiosis – a wonderful term that refers to different organisms living together. Some animals are colonised by microbes while they are still unfertilised eggs; others pick up their first partners at the moment of birth. We then proceed through our lives in their presence. When we eat, so do they. When we travel, they come along. When we die, they consume us. Every one of us is a zoo in our own right’– a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world.
- In this book, I use the terms ‘microbiota’ and ‘microbiome’ interchangeably. Some scientists will argue that microbiota means the organisms themselves, while microbiome refers to their collective genes. But one of the very first uses of microbiome, back in 1988, used the term to talk about a group of microbes living in a given place. That definition persists today – it emphasises the ‘biome’ bit, which refers to a community, rather than the ‘ome’ best, which refers to the world of genomes.
- This imagery was first used by the ecologist Clair Folsome (Folsome, 1985).
- Sponges: Thacker and Freeman, 2012; placozoans: personal communication from Nicole Dubilier and Margaret McFall-Ngai.
My gut feeling: This book is a fine example of popular science writing, and has much to teach us about the everyday workings of our bodies. It’s one of my three favorites from the shortlist.
See also: Paul’s review at Nudge
Shortlist strategy: Tomorrow I’ll post a quick response to David France’s How to Survive a Plague, and on Sunday we will announce our shadow panel winner.
I was delighted to be asked to participate in the Wellcome Book Prize blog tour. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.
And if you are within striking distance of London, please consider coming to one of the shortlist events being held this Saturday and Sunday.
In April I’ll be busy with the last three books on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist. I’m nearing halfway in Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes, have just started Siddhartha Mukherjee’s dauntingly dense The Gene, and am still awaiting my library hold on David France’s How to Survive a Plague. With the shadow panel’s decision due by the 23rd, it’s going to be something of a struggle! If push comes to shove, I’ll have to leave Dickens aside for next month and call Mukherjee and/or France my doorstopper for April.
As to other planned posts for the month…
- I read my second Margaret Laurence novel a little while back and just need to find time to write it up.
- I’m taking part in a nonfiction blog tour for a bereavement memoir on the 11th.
- I’m working on four review books, including two offered directly by the authors.
- I’ll try to round up a few recent or upcoming theology titles for an Easter post.
- If I get a chance, I’ll preview two or more recommended May releases.
Luckily, it’s a quieter month for me in terms of work deadlines. I’ve been working like a fiend to get ready for our short break to Hay-on-Wye, leaving Monday and returning Thursday evening. Tomorrow I’ll be submitting four completed reviews and scheduling a Wellcome Prize post for while we’re away, and then I’ll be able to breathe a big sigh of relief and allow myself some time off – always a difficult thing for freelancers to manage.
This will be our sixth trip to Hay-on-Wye, the Book Town in Wales. Our other visits clustered between 2004 and 2011; I can hardly believe it’s nearly six years since we’ve been back to one of our favorite places! Yet it’s a bittersweet return. On four of our previous trips, we stayed in the same B&B, a gorgeous eighteenth-century house with extensive gardens. It’s where we got engaged in 2006. It also served the finest breakfast known to man: organic Full English PLUS homemade cereals and jam to go with warm croissants; local single-variety apple juice PLUS all-you-can-drink tea. Around 2013 we toyed with the idea of going back, but didn’t make a serious enquiry until 2014. Alas, they’d closed temporarily while the hostess underwent breast cancer treatment. We wished them well, hoping we’d get a message when they reopened for business. Instead, we found her obituary in the Guardian last year.
So, although Hay is still our special place, we’re sad the experience won’t be quite the same. We also noticed that more shops have closed since last we visited, but there are still about 12, a lot for a town of its size. Some of these are top-class, like Booth’s, the Cinema Bookshop and Addyman’s. There will certainly be no dearth of tempting shopping opportunities. I’m not going with much of a plan in mind. Our general strategy is to start with the cheapest shops/bargain basements and then move on to more expensive and specialist ones.
Hay is better for browsing than for concerted searching for particular titles – for that you’re better off going online (many of the shops do Internet sales). It’s also not a place to go for cheap paperbacks – for that you’re better off at your local charity shop. So although I’m taking an updated list of books that are priorities to find, I don’t expect to make much of a dent in it. I’ll just wander and see what catches my eye. We’ll also visit Llanthony Priory and Clyro Church, go for a good country walk, and have lunch with a friend in the Brecon area.
Taking books to Hay is rather like taking coal to Newcastle, but it must be done. I’ve picked four topical reads to sample while I’m there: a selection from Reverend Francis Kilvert’s diary – he was the curate of Clyro from 1865 to 1872; Bruce Chatwin’s 1982 debut novel On the Black Hill, set on the England–Wales border; the obscure classic The Rebecca Rioter, about the Rebecca Riots against tolls in rural Wales in 1839–43; and a Kindle copy of The Airbnb Story, since we’re renting an Airbnb property this time.
But that’s not all. I need to make progress in at least some of the books I currently have on the go, too, so I will be loading up a book-themed tote bag with the following:
Now, the last thing I needed just before a trip to Hay was an influx of secondhand books, but I couldn’t help myself. This afternoon a local green initiative ran a swap shop where you bring things you don’t want anymore and go home with things you do want. I donated a couple of household items and a few books … but came away with 13 books. Good travel and literature finds. I’m particularly pleased with Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems and a Dave Eggers novel I’ve not read. It’s fun to think of the journeys these books have been on: John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel (which I have already read, but would like to have around for reference) is an ex-library book all the way from Westborough, Massachusetts! I left my details so I can get involved with future local greening activities, too.
I know a number of my readers are Hay regulars, or have at least made the trek once. If you have any up-to-date recommendations for us in terms of shopping or eating out in the area, do let me know (by tomorrow night if you can – we’re away from Monday morning).
Enjoy my Sarah Moss review while I’m away, and I’ll see you back here on Friday!
I’m delighted to announce the final members of our Wellcome Book Prize 2017 shadow panel:
Ruby blogs at My Booking Great Blog.
GrrlScientist is an ornithologist and science journalist who was on the judging panel for the 2016 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize.
Luckily, I’ve already read two of the shortlisted titles, one quite recently and one nearly a year and a half ago. Here are the reviews I published on Goodreads at the time. I’ll be getting both books back out of the library soon to have another look before we choose our winner.
Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal
(translated from the French by Jessica Moore; published in the USA as The Heart)
[This is the French author’s second novel to be translated into English. It has been made into a film and won the Prix Orange du Livre and the Grand prix RTL du livre. It was also recently shortlisted for the Albertine Prize, an American readers’ choice award for contemporary French fiction. If you’re based in the States, feel free to vote by April 30th!]
Nineteen-year-old Simon Limbeau is declared brain dead in a French hospital after a car accident, but his heart lives on: metaphorically through the love of his parents, sister, friends, and girlfriend; but also literally, in the recipient of his organ donation. Again and again de Kerangal makes a distinction between the physical reality of organs and what they represent: “Simon’s eyes are not just his nervous retina, his taffeta iris, his pupil of pure black in front of the crystalline – they are also his gaze; his skin isn’t just the threaded mesh of his epidermis, his porous cavities – it’s his light and his touch, the living sensors of his body.”
The novel spends time with Simon’s family, especially his mother, but also with the transplant coordinator, the surgeons, the nurse, and so on. I was reminded of ER as well as the French TV show The Returned – this would work really well on screen, and would be a way of avoiding the more off-putting aspects of the author’s style. She writes long, run-on sentences: sometimes half a page, sometimes even stretching to two pages, and stuffs her prose with abstruse vocabulary (or at least that’s how the translator has rendered it), a lot of it medical but some of it simply inaccessible: “emollient conjugality” plus at least a dozen English words I’d never encountered (e.g. abulic, tumid, atony, claudicant, auscultation, precellence, torticollis, naevi, scialytic).
The worst example of the unnecessary opacity is “the digitigrade gait of the sardana dancer when he’s nearing a quintal, the corpulence of an ex-obese man calibrating him in thickness, in fullness, but without visible excrescence” – in plain English, the guy is stocky.
Read in November 2016.
My gut feeling: The novel gives a vivid sense of the fragility of life and imbues parts of the body with metaphorical meaning. However, I think the style makes it too inaccessible and I can’t see its appeal ever being more than niche.
Annabel’s at Shiny New Books
Carolyn’s at Rosemary and Reading Glasses
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
[The first posthumous nominee for the Wellcome Book Prize. I’ll be interested to see what I make of this one when I revisit it.]
Paul Kalanithi was 36 and just completing his neurosurgery residency in Stanford, California when he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer that did not respond well to treatment. It came as a complete surprise to this non-smoker, and set his life on a new course. He and his coterie of doctors managed his symptoms so he could operate for as long as possible, but when the time came he knew he wanted to devote his last year to writing this memoir. In addition, he would get a brief, sweet taste of fatherhood: he and his wife Lucy, also in the medical field, decided to have a child, a daughter named Cady.
Kalanithi grew up the son of Indian immigrants in Arizona. “I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful?” he recalls. Degrees in English literature and human biology were disparate attempts to find an answer. Like Henry Marsh (Do No Harm), he has a surgeon’s knowledge of the anatomy of reasoning, but realizes that does not provide the full picture. He recognizes the responsibility of holding others’ lives in the balance, and regrets occasional failures of empathy.
Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.
It’s intriguing to see religious language in that statement – indeed, Kalanithi saw his work as a calling, and one with moral connotations. Christian imagery shows up repeatedly:
Instead of being the pastoral figure aiding a life transition, I found myself the sheep, lost and confused.
Openness to human relationality does not mean revealing grand truths from the apse; it means meeting patients where they are, in the narthex or nave, and bringing them as far as you can.
When’s the last time you encountered the word “narthex”?! The vocabulary is striking throughout, as in another favorite passage: “A tureen of tragedy was best allotted by the spoonful. Only a few patients demanded the whole at once; most needed time to digest.”
Kalanithi died in March 2015. In addition to the foreword by Abraham Verghese, there’s a lovely epilogue from his widow, who’s more than competent to carry on his legacy.
I appreciate stories lived on the knife edge of life and death, but I would recommend this to those who don’t normally choose to read illness narratives, simply for the beauty of its prose – a fine blend of literature and medicine – and the wholehearted picture of a life cut short.
Read in October 2015 (Random House were looking for early readers via NetGalley).
My gut feeling: I suspect this is by far the most popular and best-selling title on this year’s shortlist. So many people have taken it to their hearts. It will take a truly special book to knock it from the top spot.
Shadow panelist Paul’s at Nudge
Shadow panelist Ruby’s at My Booking Great Blog
Susan’s at A life in books
Currently reading: The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss – about halfway through.
Up next: Whichever of the remaining nonfiction titles turns up to the library for me first!
I’ve also sent off an emergency e-mail to Bodley Head asking for a copy of Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes; it’s on loan through my library system until April 19th, which gives me no time to read it even if it comes back on time.
Newsflash! I’ve started a shadow panel of readers who will make our way through the six medical-themed titles shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize and deliberate to choose our own winner before the official prize announcement on Monday, April 24th. I hope to get the panel up to five – I’ve been in contact with a couple of science journalists via Twitter – but for now we are three, including:
Paul Cheney: blogs at Halfman, Halfbook and writes for Nudge’s Book Life section.
Amy Pirt: blogs at This Little Bag of Dreams and writes for Mookychick and g3 magazine.
The Wellcome Book Prize is an annual award sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation founded by Sir Henry Wellcome in 1936 and dedicated to improving health. The current incarnation of the prize has been running since 2009 and the winner gets a whopping £30,000. Books are nominated by their publishers, and for the 2017 award cycle they must have been issued in the UK between January 1, 2016 and December 31, 2016.
One thing that’s unique about the Wellcome Prize is that both fiction and nonfiction books are eligible. Here’s how the website describes the aim of the prize:
To be eligible for entry, a book should have a central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human. The subjects these books grapple with might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity. In keeping with its vision and goals, the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics.
So as we’re reading (or looking back at) the six shortlisted books, those are the criteria we’ll be keeping in mind.
Here’s the full 2017 shortlist:
- How to Survive a Plague by David France: a history of the AIDS crisis.
- When Breath Becomes Air* by Paul Kalanithi: a posthumous memoir by a neurosurgeon.
- Mend the Living* by Maylis de Kerangal (trans. Jessica Moore): a novel about a donor heart [published in the USA as The Heart].
- The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss: a novel about a child who suddenly falls ill.
- The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee: a thorough history of genetics.
- I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong: a survey of the human body’s microbes.
* = the two I’ve already read and reviewed on Goodreads. I’ll get these reviews together for my first shortlist post on Thursday. Next up for me is The Tidal Zone, which I plan to start today. I have the three other nonfiction titles on request from the public library and hope they’ll come in soon – each one is well over 300 pages, so I’ll need plenty of time with them!
What interests you from the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist? Are there some titles you’ve already read? If you’ve reviewed any of these, let me know and I’d be happy to link to your reviews when I post mine.
Also, if you’d like to read any of the shortlisted books along with us over the next five weeks, I’d love to know that you’re taking part and will help share your reviews, so do get in touch!
(A huge thanks to Naomi of The Writes of Woman for advice on running a shadow panel.)