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The Fevers of Reason: New and Selected…

The Fevers of Reason: New and Selected Essays

by Gerald Weissmann

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Another wonderful collection by the brilliant doctor and writer Gerald Weissmann, a polymath of extraordinary reach, has me breathless with ideas and opinion. His range goes from Darwin and Oliver Wendell Holmes to Eisenhower(an interesting take on the current gun violence) with a very memorable romp through the life of Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D. Though written separately, these pieces hang together with surprising fluidity and grace. That said, they are also not for the timid or unprepared. Weissmann writes for a learned audience who will get the myriad references and asides and histories that pepper his astute essays .The only writerly drawback that I noticed is his excessive use of the pun -which is ironic since he quotes his hero Holmes as deploring puns: "people who make puns are like wanton boys that put coppers on the railroad tracks.They amuse themselves and other children, but their little trick may upset the freight train of conversation...." Fortunately, the conversation here is never derailed and will hopefully continue apace for years to come. ( )
  michaelg16 | Mar 17, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Like his mentor Lewis Thomas (The Lives of a Cell and The Medusa and the Snail) Gerald Weissmann's most recent collection of 24 essays, published as 'The Fevers of Reason' by the Bellevue Literary Press of the School of Medicine, New York University (nearly half of which are published for the first time) continues the tradition of Montaigne's 'Essai', musings in the realm of imagination linking the 'two cultures' of the arts and sciences.

[TBC] ( )
  chuck_ralston | Feb 28, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A tough one to rate, as my interest in the essay topics varied quite a lot and my enjoyment swung between two and four “stars.” The first essay in the book is heavy with scientific terminology, and this was a recurring stumbling block for me throughout the book (in his Acknowledgements at the end Weissmann thanks “Ms. Andrea Cody, the administrator of the Biotechnology Study Center at the NYU School of Medicine” for her work in “keeping my prose intelligible to humans,” but I think that perhaps he'd have done better to have entrusted this task to a reader with less scientific expertise.). My other complaint is that Weissmann's disdain for religious believers, or, as he describes them, “the credulous,” becomes a wearing refrain, even in essays where it is barely relevant.

Despite these drawbacks (which may not be negatives at all to more scientifically literate and/or nonreligious readers), there was much that I enjoyed in the book. The essays are divided into four groups, plus a final piece at the end devoted to Lewis Thomas, and each, in different ways, addresses the interplay of culture, history, and science. As I mentioned, Weissmann's writing about medical topics tends to get a bit too detailed, but he is excellent with his more biographical pieces. I particularly enjoyed the one on Eisenhower in the first section. My favorite part of the book was section three, “Two for the Road,” which focuses on “couples, mainly of the scientific persuasion, but also two of the literary sort (Katherine Lee Bates, of “America the Beautiful” fame, and Alice James, Henry James's sister). But the ones on the Lavoisiers, Elizabeth Blackwell (and her sisters), and Marie and Pierre Curie were wonderful too. In the fourth section, “Beside the Golden Door,” (which focuses on the contributions made by immigrants), I particularly enjoyed the first essay, about the efforts of Einstein and others to arrange the immigration (and escape from the Nazis) of Nobel winning scientists, and the last, which was about the work of the African-American scientist, Percy Lavon Julian in developing methods of producing cortisone in mass quantities.

I won't look for any more books by this author – he did not engage and delight me the way, say, Stephen Jay Gould, Oliver Sacks, or Lewis Thomas do – but I did enjoy many of the essays, and I learned some things along the way.

I received this book from LibraryThing through their Early Reviewers program with the understanding that the content of my review would not affect my likelihood of receiving books through the program in the future. Many thanks to Bellevue Literary Press, Gerald Weissmann, and LibraryThing! ( )
  meandmybooks | Feb 26, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
"The Fevers of Reason" is a collection of essays written by Gerald Weissmann, who is a physician, scientist, and writer. His essays are focused on the points where the sciences and art/culture world cross paths, how they behave in similar fashions (like a virus, going "viral"), and more-or-less how these two worlds are bound-up together.

It's a bit hard to describe this book in great detail, other than it's a combination of science (sometimes very technical science), history, and critique of culture. Though it's mostly science-centered, some of the essay's talk more about social, racial, and political activism, which is just as interesting and quite fascinating.

One of my favorite chapters/essays, is "Swift-Boating "America the Beautiful": Katharine Lee Bates and a Boston Marriage". Weissmann begins the chapter talking about the protests in 2007-2008 against same-sex marriage, highlighting a scene from the Iowa State Fair where everyone is very, very patriotic. Everyone is saying that homosexual marriage is a "threat to our republic", all the while the all-American farm children are singing the famous poem "America the Beautiful". The rest of the essay goes on to point out, ironically enough, that Katharine Lee Bates, the author of "America the Beautiful" and a lover of our great country, was a lesbian. Nice! Her and her partner, Katharine Coman, lived as a couple for twenty-five years, and in that time devoted their lives to major progressive movements including rights for women, hard-labor workers, and many other social activist programs. They were brave, well-educated, all-American women who all Americans should admire.

Most of the other essays talk about different pivotal events in the world of science while contrasting them to something relevant happening in culture or art, or both, during the same period of time. Or possibly how something cultural in the past influenced the science in the future, or how science in the past influenced culture in the future.

In the last chapter/essay, "Lewis Thomas and the Two Cultures", he writes about Dr. Lewis Thomas, who was also Weissmann's mentor and what seems to be one of his greatest influences. Thomas was a physician of great standing and a writer of equal merit:

"Thomas and his colleagues were educated in colleges at which the liberal arts were still firmly in place and John Dewey's learning-by-doing had moved from primary schools into the universities. It was an era when those who did medical science were expected to know why it was done and for whom. They were also expected to make only modest claims for their success: "I was lucky," Thomas quipped after he received a medal at Bologna in 1978, "chance favored the prepared grind." One knew that he was speaking for a generation of medical scientists who believed that one could do serious work without taking oneself too seriously."

This quote from page 216 which talks about the character of Dr. Thomas (which in turn affected Weissmann), partly sums-up, I believe, Weissmann's philosophy towards how to be a person-of-science. While this quote may not make sense with anyone who has not read the book, it, to me, summed-up the general feel of the whole collection of essays. Maybe it doesn't, it's just my opinion, but this is also the final essay of the book and seems to be placed just right to make a nice ending.

So all in all, it was an interesting read. If you're interested in the intersection of art and science then please read it, they're great essays. I'm not sure if this collection format was a good choice or not. I liked the book but I'm not wholly satisfied with it, I guess because it's structured like a collection of short stories: you really get into one piece and then it ends.

Great essays, okay book. ( )
  Kronomlo | Feb 20, 2018 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This collection of essays primarily focuses on medicine and biology (or subjects as least somewhat related to medicine or biology), plus a fair number that are about science or scientists more generally, and few odd pieces that don't necessarily seem to fit in with the rest (such as a slightly snarky one about college football scholarships).

I really wish I liked these more than I did. It seems like I should have liked them more than I did. The subject matter is mostly pretty interesting. I very much appreciate the way Weissmann makes a point of highlighting the contributions of women and immigrants. I even agree with lots of the personal and political opinions he includes. (Yes, homeopathy is bunk! Gay rights are important! I'm with ya, buddy!)

And yet... There's no good way to say this, but Weissmann's prose just really bores me, and I find it remarkably hard to put my finger on why, because it's not actively horrible or anything. Maybe it's just a little too unfocused, not sufficiently unpacking thoughts I'd like to know more about before wandering off after ones I find less interesting. Maybe it's that the writing is a little dry and, at least when he's talking about his own field of rheumatology, sometimes a little too technical. Maybe it's that the occasional bit of humor and word play he indulges in fails to land very well with me and make me feel, perhaps unfairly, that he's trying to substitute cleverness for clarity. Maybe it's just that he includes lengthy quotes from people like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Lewis Thomas whose vivid writing makes his look extra-dull by comparison. Or maybe it's just me; maybe I'm simply not the right audience for this particular book, despite a general appreciation for science writing. Whatever is it, though, I have to admit, it was often hard to keep my mind on the sentences I was reading.

Which certainly isn't to say that I didn't find anything worthwhile here when I did manage to keep my mind on it. For one thing, I've come to the conclusion that I definitely want to read some Oliver Wendell Holmes. And I'm rather glad to have read the essay on the pioneering female physician Elizabeth Blackwell, which I think was quite possibly the best thing in this collection. I guess I was just hoping, overall, for something I'd find a little more lively and engaging.

Rating: I've talked myself into giving this a 3/5, which is a half star higher than I feel like I want to rate it based on how I felt about it, but may be closer to what it objectively deserves, given that I think at least some of my failure to get on with Weissmann's writing probably is as much me as him. ( )
  bragan | Feb 17, 2018 |
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