Five of the six shortlisted authors (barring Dublin-based Mark O’Connell) were at the Wellcome Collection in London yesterday to share more about their books in mini-interviews with Lisa O’Kelly, the associate editor of the Observer. She called each author up onto the stage in turn for a five-minute chat about her work, and then brought them all up for a general conversation and audience questions. Clare and I found it a very interesting afternoon. Here’s some context that I gleaned about the five books and their writers.
Ayobami Adebayo says sickle cell anemia is a massive public health problem in Nigeria, as brought home to her when some friends died of complications of sickle cell. She herself was tested for the gene and learned that she is a carrier, so her children would have a 25% chance of having the disease if her partner was also a carrier. Although life expectancy with the disease has improved to 45–50, a cure is still out of reach for most Nigerians because bone marrow/stem cell transplantation and anti-rejection drugs are so expensive. Compared to the 1980s, when her book opens, she believes polygamy is becoming less fashionable in Nigeria and people are becoming more open to other means of becoming parents, whether IVF or adoption. It’s a way of acknowledging, she says, that parenthood is “not just about biology.”
Sigrid Rausing started writing her book soon after her sister-in-law Eva’s body was found: just random paragraphs to make sense of what had happened. From there it became an investigation, a quest to find the nature of addiction. She thinks that as a society we still don’t quite understand what addiction is, and the medical research and public perception are very separate. In addition to nature and nurture, she thinks we should consider the influence of culture – as an anthropologist by training, she’s very interested in drug culture and how that drew in her brother, Hans. Although there have been many memoirs by ex-addicts, she can’t think of another one by a family member. Perhaps, she suggested, this is because the addict is seen as the ultimate victim. She referred to her book as a “collage,” a very apt description.
Kathryn Mannix spoke of how her grandmother, born in 1900, saw so much more death than we do nowadays: siblings, a child, and so on. Today, though, Mannix has encountered people in their sixties who are facing, with their parents, their very first deaths. Death is fairly “gentle” and “dull” if you’re not directly involved, she insists; she blames Hollywood and Eastenders for showing unusually dramatic deaths. She said once you understand what exactly people are afraid of about dying (e.g. hell, oblivion, pain, leaving their families behind) you can address their specific concerns and thereby “beat out the demon of terror and fear.” Mannix never intended to write a book, but someone heard her on the radio and invited her to do so. Luckily, from her medical school days onward, she’d been writing an A4 page about each of her most mind-boggling cases to get them out of her head and move on. That’s why, as O’Kelly put it, the characters in her 30 stories “leap off the page.”
Lindsey Fitzharris called The Butchering Art “a love story between science and medicine” – it was the first time that the former (antisepsis) was applied to the latter. She initially thought Robert Liston was her man – he was so colorful, larger than life – but eventually found that the real story was with Joseph Lister, the quiet, persistent Quaker. (However, the book does open with Liston performing the first surgery under ether.) Fitzharris is also involved in the Order of the Good Death, author Caitlin Doughty’s initiative, and affirmed Mannix’s efforts to remove the taboo from talking about death. I think I heard correctly that she said there is a film of The Butchering Art in the works?! I’ll need to look into that some more.
Meredith Wadman started with a brief explanation of how immunization works and why the 1960s were ripe for vaccine research. This segment went really science-y, which I thought was a little unfortunate as it may have made listeners tune out and be less interested in her work than the others’. It was perhaps inevitable given her subject matter, but also a matter of the questions O’Kelly asked – with the others she focused more on stories and themes than on scientific facts. It was interesting to hear what Wadman has been working on recently: for the past 6–8 months, she’s been reporting for Science on sexual harassment in science. For her next book, though, she’s pondering the conflict between a congressman and a Centers for Disease Control scientist over funding into research that might lead to gun control.
The question time brought up the issues of medical misinformation online, the distrust people with chronic illnesses have of medical professionals, and euthanasia – Mannix rather dodged that one, stating that her book is about the natural dying process so that’s not really her area. (Though it does come up in a chapter of her book.) We also heard a bit about the projects up next for each author. Rausing’s next book will be a travel memoir about the Capetown drought, taking in apartheid and her husband’s family’s immigration. Adebayo is at work on a very nebulous novel “about people,” and possibly how privilege affects access to healthcare.
Addiction, death, infertility, surgery, transhumanism and vaccines: It’s been quite the varied reading list for the five of us this spring! Lots of science, lots of medicine, but also a lot of stories and imagination.
After some conferring and voting, we have arrived at our shadow panel winner for the Wellcome Book Prize 2018: To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell.
Rarely have I been so surprised to love a book. It’s a delight to read, and no matter what your background or beliefs are, it will give you plenty to think about. It goes deep down, beneath our health and ultimately our mortality, to ask what the essence of being human is.
Here’s what the rest of the shadow panel has to say about our pick:
Annabel: “O’Connell, as a journalist and outsider in the surprisingly diverse field of transhumanism, treats everyone with respect: asking the questions, but not judging, to get to the heart of the transhumanists’ beliefs. For a subject based in technology, To Be a Machine is a profoundly human story.”
Clare: “The concept of transhumanism may not be widely known or understood yet, but O’Connell’s engaging and fascinating book explains the significance of the movement and its possible implications both in the distant future and how we live now.”
Laura: “My brain feels like it’s been wired slightly differently since reading To Be a Machine. It’s not just about weird science and weird scientists, but how we come to terms with the fact that even the luckiest of us live lives that are so brief.”
Paul: “An interesting book that hopefully will provoke further discussion as we embrace technology and it envelops us.”
On Monday we’ll find out which book the official judges have chosen. I could see three or four of these as potential winners, so it’s very hard to say who will take home the £30,000.
Who are you rooting for?
The topic of this shortlisted book didn’t particularly appeal to me, so I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy it. Transhumanism is about using technology to help us overcome human limitations and radically extend our lifespan. Many of the strategies O’Connell, a Dublin-based freelance writer with a literature background, profiles are on the verge of science fiction. Are we looking at liberation from the rules of biology, or enslavement to technology? His travels take him to the heart of this very American, and very male, movement.
Cryogenic freezing: The first person was cryogenically frozen in 1966. Max More’s Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona offers whole-body or head-only (“neuro”) options for $200,000 or $80,000. More argues that the residents of Alcor are somewhere between living and dead. These entities are held in suspension in the belief that technology will one day allow us to upload the contents of the mind into a new vessel.
- This approach seems to conceive of the human mind/consciousness as pure information to be computed.
Cyborgs: Grindhouse Wetware, near Pittsburgh, aims to turn people into literal cyborgs. Tim Cannon had a Circadia device the size of a deck of cards implanted in his arm for three months to take biometric measurements. Other colleagues have implanted RFID chips. He intends to have his arms amputated and replaced by superior prostheses as soon as the technology is available.
- That may seem extreme, but think how bound people already are to machines: O’Connell calls his smartphone a “mnemonic prosthesis” during his research travels.
Mortality as the enemy: Many transhumanists O’Connell meets speak of aging and death as an affront to human dignity. We mustn’t be complacent, they argue, but must oppose these processes with all we’re worth. One of the key people involved in that fight is Aubrey de Grey of SENS (“Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence”), and Google has also gotten in on it with their “Calico” project.
- O’Connell recounts explaining aging and death to his three-year-old son; his wife chipped in that – according to “Dada’s book” – perhaps by the time the boy is grown up death will no longer be a problem.
The Singularity: Posited by Ray Kurzweil, the Singularity is the future point at which artificial intelligence will surpass humanity. O’Connell likens it to the Christian idea of the Rapture, itself a moment of transcendence. At a conference on transhumanism and religion in Piedmont, California, he encounters Terasem, a religion founded recently by a transhumanist and transgender person.
- To my surprise, To Be a Machine makes frequent reference to religious ideas: O’Connell thinks of transhumanism as an attempt to reverse the Fall and become godlike, and he often describes the people he meets as zealots or saints, driven by the extremity of their beliefs. Both religion and transhumanism could be seen as a way of combating nihilism and insisting on the meaning of human life.
O’Connell’s outsider position helped me to engage with the science; he’s at least as interested, if not more so, in the deeper philosophical questions that transhumanism raises. I would caution that a grounding in religion and philosophy could be useful, as the points of reference used here range from the Gnostic gospels and St. Augustine to materialism and Nietzsche. But anyone who’s preoccupied with human nature should find the book intriguing.
You could also enjoy this purely as a zany travelogue along the lines of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed and Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck. The slapstick antics of the robots at the DARPA Robotics Challenge and the road trip in Zoltan Istvan’s presidential campaign Immortality Bus are particularly amusing. O’Connell’s Dickensian/Wildean delight in language is evident, and I also appreciated his passing references to William Butler Yeats.
It could be argued, however, that O’Connell was not the ideal author of this book. He is not naturally sympathetic to transhumanism; he’s pessimistic and skeptical, often wondering whether the proponents he meets are literally insane (e.g., to think that they are in imminent danger of being killed by robots). Most of the relevant research, even when conducted by Europeans, is going on in the USA, particularly in the Bay Area. So why would an Irish literary critic choose transhumanism as the subject for his debut? It’s a question I asked myself more than once, though it never stopped me from enjoying the book.
The title (from an Andy Warhol quote) may reference machines, but really this is about what it means to be human. O’Connell even ends with a few pages on his own cancer scare, a reminder that our bodies are flawed machines. I encourage you to give this a try even if you think you have no particular interest in technology or science fiction. It could also give a book club a lot to discuss.
“We exist, we humans, in the wreckage of an imagined splendor. It was not supposed to be this way: we weren’t supposed to be weak, to be ashamed, to suffer, to die. We have always had higher notions of ourselves. … The frailty is the thing, the vulnerability. This infirmity, this doubtful convalescence we refer to, for want of a better term, as the human condition.”
See what the rest of the shadow panel has to say about this book:
Annabel’s review: “I loved this book from the front cover to the back, starting with its title. … He writes with empathy and a good deal of humour which makes the text always readable and entertaining, while provoking his readers to think deeply about their own beliefs.”
Clare’s review: “O’Connell’s prose style is wordy and ironic. He is pleasingly sceptical about many aspects of transhumanism. … It is an entertaining book which provides a lot of food for thought for a layperson like myself.”
Laura’s review: “Often, I found that his description of his own internal questions would mirror mine. This is a really fantastic book, and for me, a clear front runner for the Wellcome Book Prize.”
Paul’s review: “An interesting book that hopefully will provoke further discussion as we embrace technology and it envelops us.”
My gut feeling: Though they highlight opposite approaches to death – transcending it versus accepting it – this and Kathryn Mannix’s With the End in Mind seem to me the two shortlisted books of the most pressing importance. I’d be happy to see either of them win. To Be a Machine is an awful lot of fun to read, and it seems like a current favorite for our panel.
- I’m coming close to the end of my skim of The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman.
- I’m still awaiting a review copy of Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing, which I’ll be featuring as part of the official Wellcome Book Prize shortlist blog tour.
“Women manufacture children and if you can’t you are just a man. Nobody should call you a woman.”
On balance, I’m glad that the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist reading forced me to go back and give Stay with Me another try. Last year I read the first 15% of this debut novel for a potential BookBrowse review but got bored with the voice and the story, rather unfairly dismissing it as a rip-off of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I also doubted that the health theme was strong enough for it to make the Wellcome shortlist, but that’s because I hadn’t read far enough to realize just how many medical conditions come up for consideration: it’s not just infertility, but also false pregnancy, cot death (or SIDS), sickle cell disease, and impotence.
This time around I found Yejide a more sympathetic character. The words that open this review are cruel ones spoken by her mother-in-law. Her desperation to become and stay a mother drives her to extreme measures that also give a window onto indigenous religion in Nigeria: ‘breastfeeding’ a goat on the Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles, and allowing an act of ritual scarification to prevent the return of an abiku, or spirit child (I’ve heard that one narrates Ben Okri’s Booker Prize-winning 1991 novel, The Famished Road).
Polygamy is another Nigerian custom addressed in the novel. Yejide’s husband, Akinyele Ajayi, allows himself to be talked into taking another wife, Funmilayo, when Yejide hasn’t produced a child after four years. There’s irony in the fact that polygyny is considered a valid route to pregnancy while polyandry is not, and traditional versus Western values are contrasted in the different generations’ reactions to polygamy: does it equate to adultery?
There are some welcome flashes of humor in the novel, such as when Yejide deliberately serves a soup made with three-day-old beans and Funmi gets explosive diarrhea. I also enjoyed the ladies’ gossip at Yejide’s hair salon. However, the story line tends towards the soap operatic, and well before halfway it starts to feel like just one thing after another: A lot happens, but to no apparent purpose. I was unconvinced by the choices the author made in terms of narration (split between Yejide and Akin, both in first person but with some second person address to each other) and structure (divided between 2008 and the main action starting in the 1980s). We see certain scenes from both spouses’ perspective, but that doubling doesn’t add anything to the overall picture. The writing is by turns maudlin (“each minute pregnant with hope, each second tremulous with tragedy”) and uncolloquial (“afraid that my touch might … careen him into the unknown”).
Things that at first seemed insignificant to me – the 1993 election results, what happens to Funmi, the one major scene set in 2008 – do eventually take on more meaning, and there is a nice twist partway through as well as a lovely surprise at the end. I did feel the ache of the title phrase as it applies to this couple’s children and marriage, so threatened by “all the mess of love and life that only shows up as you go along.” It all makes for truly effortless reading that I gobbled up in chunks of 50 or 100 pages – which indicates authorial skill, of course – yet this seems to me a novel more interesting for the issues it addresses than for its story and writing.
My gut feeling: I would be very surprised if a novel won two years in a row. While the medical situations examined here are fairly wrenching, Stay with Me isn’t strong enough to win. Its appearance on the shortlist (for the Women’s Prize, too) is honor enough, I think.
- I’m one-third through The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman but have started skimming because it’s dense and not quite as laymen-friendly as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Emperor of All Maladies, the two books its subject matter is most reminiscent of for me.
- On Friday I started To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell, which I’m also one-third through and have taken away on our mini-holiday. This is the shortlisted book whose topic appealed to me the least, so I’m pleasantly surprised to be enjoying it so much. It helps that O’Connell comes at the science as an outsider – he’s a freelance writer with a literature background, and he’s interested in the deeper philosophical questions that transhumanism raises.
- I’m awaiting a review copy of Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing, which I’ll be featuring as part of the official Wellcome Book Prize shortlist blog tour.
From 12, we are now down to six. The 2018 Wellcome Book Prize shortlist is here!
Some quick thoughts:
I sort-of predicted three out of the six in yesterday’s post: The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris, With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix, and To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell.
I’m relieved that I’d already gotten to two of the shortlisted titles (Fitzharris and Mannix), so I can focus on reading the other four over the next 5+ weeks, and will briefly revisit those first two on my Kindle when it’s decision time.
I am pretty shocked that Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am did not advance to the shortlist. Mayhem will have to be a truly amazing memoir to outdo it; I wanted to read it anyway, but now I’m particularly keen – it would be a good one for me to feature on the official blog tour if that happens to work out.
I’m not feeling very cheerful about having to start Stay with Me again (I DNFed it last year), but I’ll try to approach it with an open mind.
To Be a Machine is currently on shelf at my local library (fingers crossed that it’s still there when I go on Friday) and I’ve reserved The Vaccine Race from another branch. I’ll start with one of those.
I’ve also been promised two review copies at random in the post – let’s hope it’s not the two I’ve already read!
(See also Laura’s initial thoughts.)
Feel like joining the shadow panel in reading one or more of these six books?
Tomorrow the six titles on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist will be revealed. I’ve managed to read one more from the longlist since my last batch.
The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris
Surgery was a gory business with a notably high fatality rate well into the nineteenth century. Surgeons had the fastest hands in the West, but their victims were still guaranteed at least a few minutes of utter agony as they had a limb amputated or a tumor removed, and the danger wasn’t over after they were sewn up either: most patients soon died from hospital infections. The development of anesthetics and antiseptic techniques helped to change all that.
Fitzharris opens with the vivid and rather gruesome scene of a mid-thigh amputation performed by Robert Liston at University College Hospital in London in 1846. This surgery was different, though: it only took 28 seconds, but the patient felt nothing thanks to the ether he had been administered. He woke up a few minutes later asking when the procedure would begin. In the audience that day was Joseph Lister, who would become one of Britain’s most admired surgeons.
Lister came from a Quaker family and, after being educated at University College London, started his career in Edinburgh. Different to many medical professionals of the time, he was fascinated by microscopy and determined to find out what caused deadly infections. Carbolic acid and catgut ligatures were two of Lister’s main innovations that helped to fight infection. In fact, whether we realize it or not, his legacy is forever associated with antiseptics: Listerine mouthwash (invented in 1879) is named after him, and the Johnson brothers of Johnson & Johnson fame started their business mass-producing sterile surgical dressings after attending one of Lister’s lectures.
My interest tailed off a bit after the first third, as the book starts going into more depth about Lister’s work and personal life: he married his boss’s daughter and moved from Edinburgh to Glasgow and then back to London. However, the best is yet to come: the accounts of the surgeries he performed on his sister (a mastectomy that bought her three more years of life) and Queen Victoria (removing an orange-sized abscess from under her arm) are terrific. The chapter on treating the queen in secret at Balmoral Castle in 1871 was my overall favorite.
I was that kid who loved going to Civil War battlefields and medical museums and looking at all the different surgical saws and bullet fragments in museum cases, so I reveled in the gory details here but was not as interested in the biographical material. Do be sure you have a strong stomach before you try reading the prologue over a meal. This is a comparable read to The Remedy, about the search for a cure to tuberculosis.
Now, I’ve still only read half of the longlisted titles so far, so it’s hard to make any solid guesses. However, the below fall somewhere between wishes and informed predictions:
- In Pursuit of Memory by Joseph Jebelli: A definitive treatment of an epidemic of our time, Alzheimer’s disease. The neuroscientist author achieves the right balance between history and research on the one hand and personal stories readers can relate to on the other.
- The White Book by Han Kang: The only fiction title from the longlist that I haven’t read at least part of. This is also on this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist and has been well received. From what I can tell, the health theme seems stronger than that of Stay with Me or Midwinter Break, and it would also be nice for one title in translation to make the shortlist.
- With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix: As I said in my review last week, this is an excellent all-round guide to preparation for death, based around touching patient stories plus the author’s experience in palliative care and CBT. Practical, compassionate and helpful.
- I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell: For me, this book stands out as the one that most clearly illuminates the effects of illness, medical treatment, and other threats to life and limb in the course of an ordinary existence. I’d be very happy to see it win the whole thing.
- EITHER The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris OR The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman: I reckon one history of science title deserves to be on there; I think Wadman might have the slight edge.
- EITHER To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell OR Behave by Robert Sapolsky: The Wellcome Prize loves big books investigating human tendencies and possibilities. I find the thought of either of these daunting, but I know they would also be illuminating. I’d prefer to read the O’Connell, but I’d give the edge to Sapolsky.
Any predictions of your own to make?
The 2018 Wellcome Book Prize longlist is here! From the prize’s website, you can click on any of these 12 books’ covers, titles or authors to get more information about them.
Some initial thoughts:
I correctly predicted three of the entries (or 25%) in yesterday’s post: In Pursuit of Memory by Joseph Jebelli, With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix, and I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell. I’m pretty shocked to not see Fragile Lives or Admissions on the list.
Of the remainder, I’ve already read one (Midwinter Break) and DNFed another (Stay with Me). Midwinter Break didn’t immediately suggest itself to me for this prize because its themes of ageing and alcoholism are the background to a story about the disintegration of a long marriage. Nonetheless, it’s a lovely book that hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves – it was on my runners-up list from last year – so I’m delighted to see it nominated. Stay with Me was also on the Women’s Prize shortlist; it appears here for its infertility theme, but I wouldn’t attempt it again unless it made the Wellcome shortlist.
As to the rest:
- I’m annoyed with myself for not remembering The Butchering Art, which I have on my Kindle. Sometimes I assume that books I’ve gotten from NetGalley are USA-only and don’t check for a UK publisher. I plan to read this and With the End in Mind (also on my Kindle) soon.
- I already knew about and was interested in Mayhem and The White Book.
- Of the ones I didn’t know about, Plot 29 appeals to me the most. I’m off to get it from the library this very afternoon, in fact. Its health theme seems quite subtle: it’s about a devoted gardener ‘digging’ into his past in an abusive family and foster care. The Guardian review describes it thus: “Like Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, this is a profoundly moving account of mental trauma told through the author’s encounters with nature. Jenkins sees his garden as a place where a person can try to escape from, and atone for, the darkness of human existence.” This is the great thing about prize lists: they can introduce you to fascinating books you might never have heard of otherwise. Even if it’s just one book that takes your fancy, who knows? It might end up being a favorite.
- While I’m not immediately drawn to the books on the history of vaccines, the evolution of human behavior, and transhumanism, I will certainly be glad to read them if they make the shortlist.
Some statistics on this year’s longlist, courtesy of the press release I was sent by e-mail:
- Three novels, three memoirs, and six nonfiction titles
- Five debut authors
- Three titles from independent publishers (Canongate and Granta/Portobello Books)
- The authors are from the UK, Ireland, USA, Nigeria, Canada, and – making their first appearance – Sweden (Sigrid Rausing) and South Korea (Han Kang)
Chair of judges Edmund de Waal writes: “The Wellcome Book Prize is unique in its reach across genres, and so the range of books that we have considered has been exhilarating in its extent and ambition. This is a remarkable time for readers, with a great flourishing of writing on ideas around science, medicine and health, lives and deaths, histories and futures. After passionate discussions we have arrived at our longlist for the Wellcome Book Prize 2018 and are proud to be part of this process of bringing to a wider public these 12 tremendous books that have moved, intrigued and inspired us. All of them bring something new to our understanding of what it is to be human.”
The shortlist is announced on Tuesday, March 20th, and the winner will be revealed on Monday, April 30th.