Notes on the Art of Surgery
by Richard Selzer
This is so different from most other books I\’ve read. It\’s a surgeon waxing eloquent on the craft and skill of his occupation. He talks about disease in the most interesting way, describes opening the body and moving into its depths to find ailments and organs as if navigating a landscape. Speaks with passion, and respect for the wonders of the human body. It\’s not really a book of case studies, more a selection of snapshots that show how the surgeon felt about his work, reflections on the meaning of it, looking at how his patients responded to treatment. Or didn\’t- some of them died under his hands. It is surprisingly, baldly honest- describing in detail many things that are hard to face- an abortion, an amputation, an explorative surgery that goes wrong, the process of embalming or autopsy. I\’ve read a few books about medicine, hospital work, and the like, but never with things described the way they are here.
It\’s also an old book, and of course outdated in lots of things. Much of it admitting no understanding, no hope for cure, or putting forth mistaken ideas. I was surprised and kind of annoyed that he goes on and on in one chapter about how horrible alcohol is for the liver- and yet spends another chapter extolling his smoking habit. It\’s illustrated here and there with woodcuts, engravings and lithographs from the Yale Medical Library- they\’re not dated but give the work a feeling of more antiquity. I saw someone\’s comment online that this book is funny- but I guess you\’d have to be a surgeon yourself to see the humor in it. I found it really interesting. Funny? not so much. The last part of it digresses from the main subject matter. Some short writings describing his childhood, his father\’s practice. There\’s an essay on being carsick- something he suffered a lot from as a child- and another rather weird one about birdwatching (which he apparently was not very good at).
And yet for all its flaws, the book was a thing I wondered at. It made me see the inner workings of the body in such a different way. Its words are so vivid, so alive.
Rating: 3/5 219 pages, 1974
Peter Morton\’s Website