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Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery…

Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery (edition 1976)

by Richard Selzer

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Title:Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery
Authors:Richard Selzer
Info:Simon & Schuster (1976), Hardcover
Collections:Your library
Tags:essays, read

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Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery by Richard Selzer



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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. It's not 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. 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It's also an old book, and of course outdated in lots of things.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 own 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... 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.

from the Dogear Diary ( )
  jeane | Mar 29, 2016 |
Selzer likes language and the romance of the written word. Sometimes his writing veers toward self-conscious overdrive, smacking of Montagne, Emerson, Longfellow, of an era past, but his stories and the patients he writes about kept me glued to the page. He is a classic essayist, using words and anecdotes to reach an answer to a question he isn't sure he knows how to ask, until the writing reveals it to him. Some of the essays are less strong than others; when he waxes long on the liver and on other individual organs, I am less interested than when he looks at deeper philosophical questions about humanity, medicine, religion, faith, and how these subjects rise in the operating theatre. But he certainly can wax! And his thinking on medicine and religion, the question of the soul and the body, are intelligent, deeply thoughtful and meaningful, and inspiring. ( )
  sungene | May 10, 2009 |
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