The books in which science meets art – Cheltenham Literature Festival

11 10 2009
October 8, 2009

The Wellcome Book Prize celebrates medicine in literature and this year’s shortlist shows the genre is fit and well

From Eureka, our new science and
environment magazine

It is exactly 50 years, Raymond Tallis reminds me, since C. P. Snow gave the Rede Lecture in Cambridge that posited “two cultures” — humanities and the sciences — in opposition to each other; it’s an idea that has plagued us ever since. Although, as Tallis remarks, you could argue that things are much worse now, with 200 cultures rather than a mere two. Tallis, renowned as a scientist, a philosopher and a poet, appreciates the problems caused by this divide better than most — which is why he was so pleased to be a judge of the new Wellcome Book Prize. Its shortlist is announced here exclusively — and the winner will be revealed at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival on October 9.

The prize, worth £25,000 to the winner, is described as “celebrating medicine in literature”. But for those of you who think that sounds as if the shortlisted books will be medical textbooks, think again. Two out of the six books on the shortlist are novels; all are aimed at the general reader. What sort of books were eligible? “We created a code of practice as we went along,” Tallis tells me. “Most importantly, of course, the science had to stand up. But more than that — science and art, the objective and the subjective, had to be fully integrated; to do that is no small achievement.”

Roughly 60 books were considered by the judges, chaired by Jo Brand, who spent ten years as a psychiatric nurse before branching out into comedy. Also judging are Richard Barnett, who teaches the history of modern medicine and the history of evolution in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge and also happens to be a poet; Quentin Cooper, who presents Radio 4’s The Material World, and Gwyneth Lewis, Wales’s first National Poet and a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

The judges have come up with a fascinating, varied and challenging shortlist. Tallis is keen to stress that while all these books are accessible, one of the causes of the “two cultures” divide is an unwillingness to even try to surmount intellectual obstacles. “We have an education system which is based on the premise that if you challenge children — well, that this amounts nearly to child abuse. ‘Difficulty’ is perceived as wrong, as something to be avoided.” None of these books is “difficult” but all of them, as Tallis says, “adumbrate a point of convergence where these aspects of life — science and art — can acknowledge each other”.

The shortlist;

Three Letter Plague: A Young Man’s Journey Through a Great Epidemic

by Jonny Steinberg

Vintage, £8.99

Journalist and ethnographer Jonny Steinberg’s account of his friendship with “Sizwe Magadla”, a 29-year-old man from rural South Africa, is “an eloquent reminder that we can’t use logic to predict people’s behaviour”, said Elizabeth Pisani in The Observer. Despite the availability of effective medical treatment, Sizwe refuses to take an HIV/Aids test. Together the two men explore the implications of the epidemic and the “architecture of shame” that exaggerates the battle between Western medicine and traditional remedies. “What compels is the sustained, intimate, yet fractured dialogue between Sizwe and Jonny,” said Rachel Holmes in The Times. Steinberg knows that the HIV/Aids disaster is too complex for any grand conclusion, says Tim Butcher in the Telegraph, but his book “made me wiser about how the pandemic has caused so much death in South Africa”. Earlier this year, the Three Letter Plague was also shortlisted for The Sunday Times Alan Paton prize for non-fiction.

Intuition by Allegra Goodman  Atlantic, £12.99

An under-resourced cancer research lab in Boston hits the headlines when a researcher claims that he can reverse the growth of malignant tumour cells in mice. “A brilliant fictional account of what might drive a scientist to manipulate data,” said Clive Cookson in the Financial Times. “Fraud proves itself an excellent theme for bringing out the human side of science.” Kate Saunders in The Timesagreed: “This tale is wonderfully written and as compulsive as Grisham” although Elizabeth Lowry at The Guardian found Goodman’s dissection of human motives more interesting than the narrative. Elizabeth Day in The Observer, however, felt that the somewhat disengaged plot meant that “this penetrating novel stops short of being quite as thrilling as it should have been”. Shortlisted for the US National Book Award and the Orange Prize, it’s Goodman’s first novel to be published in the UK.

Cutting for Stone

by Abraham Verghese

Chatto, £17.99

“This is not a book for the squeamish,” warned David Horspool in The Sunday Times, “it opens with an attempted late abortion and Caesarean section, and closes with a liver transplant.” Even so, “it’s the best novel to come along so far this year” enthused Simon Schama in the Financial Times. “It has invented its own genre: the epic medical romance, surgery meets history.” Michael Bywater inThe Independent predicted that “it will probably win every award going,” although The Guardian’s Aida Edemariam found its structure too clinical: “After the body has been cut open and explored everything is returned to its place and carefully sutured up — which is not in the end, how life actually works.” But for The Times’s Kate Saunders, this is the point; she says that he “knows the human body inside out, and also the human heart”.

Illness: the Art of Living

by Havi Carel

Acumen, £9.99

Dr Havi Carel explores how insights afforded by “phenomenology” can help us to understand patients’ perspectives and change the way they are treated. This “moving and thoughtful book on illness, describes how Carel’s scholarly work on death in Freud and Heidegger helped her deal with her life-threatening lung condition,” wrote Julian Baggini in The Guardian, “but I’ve read many other accounts by seriously ill people who have drawn the same conclusion without ever having picked up a philosophy book.” Sue Child in Times Higher Education called it “one of the most profoundly moving books”.

Keeper: Living with Nancy: a Journey into Alzheimer’s

by Andrea Gillies

Short Books, £11.99

Andrea Gillies, a journalist and writer in her 40s, moved her family to remote northern Scotland so that she and her husband could care for his ailing parents. But looking after his mother, who had Alzheimer’s diagnosed, was in the end too difficult. “A painfully honest account,” said Lucy Benyon in the Daily Express, “Keeper isn’t just Nancy’s story, it’s about a monstrous disease that strips people of their dignity and life savings.”

Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives

by Brian Dillon

Penguin, £18.99

This volume charts the lives of nine hypochondriacs, including Charlotte Brontë, Marcel Proust and Charles Darwin. Tom Hicks in Metropraised its unusual theme, the “lesser-known links between hypochondria and creativity”. Kevin Jackson in The Sunday Times thought Dillon makes a fairly convincing case that the hypochondriacs “used the condition of fragile health as a means of living their lives in productive ways”.

Reviews by Megan Walsh

Click here to read more from Eureka




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