The Road to Little Dribbling

road-to-little-dribblingThe Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson

I believe I have mentioned once or twice that I will read anything Bill Bryson writes.  So when I saw Road to Little Dribbling on a “Buy 2 get the 3rd free table” only a few weeks before going on a family vacation, well, how could I resist?

One of Bryson’s earlier books is Notes from a Small Island, about his time as an American expat living in Britain.  Oddly enough, I have never read that particular book.  This is probably because once my to-be-read collection exceeded two shelves, the only new books I acquire are from the library book sale, gift-receiving and gift-giving* occasions, and the two for three table at a bookstore.  That’s a shame, as Little Dribbling is a successor to Notes and references it on several occasions.  It wasn’t at all difficult to follow the newer book, mind you.  I just wish that I could have caught all of the call backs.

Notes from a Small Island was written after Bryson, originally from Des Moines, IA, had been living in Britain for a few years.  He’s ended up marrying an English girl and living and working in Britain for over 20 years, with occasional breaks to live in the US.  In Little Dribbling he is preparing to officially become a British citizen, and so decides to travel from one end of the island to the other.  His rules in the beginning of the book were that he would go to new places rather than just recapping his travels in Notes, but he seemed to also spend an awful lot of time recapping his travels from Notes.

I always enjoy Bryson’s writings, and when he is good he is very, very good.  He has a dry wit, an eye for details that others would miss, obvious delight in the things he enjoys, and a liberal dosing of random information and trivia that I always find fascinating.  A reviewer once criticized one of my favorites, One Summer, America 1927, as a “unusually slight…highly amusing encyclopedia” and its hard to disagree, but that’s what I buy the books for.  In this book alone I learned about the odd British craze of holiday camps, the oldest hominid in Britain, how the green belt system works, the arrangement of municipalities in the country, and loads about railroad history.  Who doesn’t want that in their vacation reading?

For all that, though, this wasn’t my favorite of Bryson’s books.  For one thing, while I do enjoy reading about the parts of Britain that he loves-and a walking tour there does sound absolutely lovely, now I want to go on one-it did start to get a bit redundant.  I lost track of exactly how many places there are the loveliest scene he’s ever beheld.  I know how he feels, though.  Every bend in the drive around the California coast will take you to the most breathtakingly beautiful sight you’ve ever seen in your life.  A wonder to drive, but if I’m describing it at some point I would run out of adjectives for “gorgeous” and “spectacular” and start to bore you.

And sometimes the book swings too far in quite the opposite direction.  I regret to note that in his old age Bryson has turned into a bit of a curmudgeon.  He’s always been a bit of a curmudgeon, and sarcastic complaints about society turn up always.  They’ve moved away from creative and humorous and more towards “get off my lawn!” space.  There is actually a complaint about what kids today wear in this book, as well as the rather unoriginal observation that pop culture is vapid.  I feel that he could do better.

Lastly, it was a bit odd reading this book now, one month into the Trump administration, a year after Brexit, and realizing it was written in 2015 as these things are beginning to get started but we still thought they wouldn’t happen.  Bryson is never really political, other than in the commonsensical way people in the midwest used to be-a belief that things should work properly, that they require a bit of involvement and money in order to do so, that people should treat each other decently, and more or less mind their own business unless there’s a reason not to.  But these are all controversial statements now, and his irritation with shortsighted austerity programs, and extremely gentle defense of immigrants-after all, he is one-are impossible to read without thinking of where they in context of a society that will continue down that road.  At least for me.

For all that, though, this book was still an enjoyable distraction.  I read it while on vacation and watching three small children, and it was good for that.  Not so taxing that I couldn’t read it while my attention was divided, and not so light that I forgot to pick it back up.  Perhaps not Bryson’s best, but all in all worth the purchase price.


*I often buy my husband books that I’d like to read.  Usually I also think he’ll like them.


Proust Was a Neuroscientist

Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lproust-was-a-neuroscientistehrer’s first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist aims to make the argument that artists may understand the human condition even better than scientists.  In particular, neuroscience—probably an easy place to make the case, seeing as how relatively young neuroscience is compared to other disciplines and how little we still know about the brain.  It’s not a bad idea, and I generally agree that art can be another way of knowing and explaining the world in a different way from science that the Western World should have a great deal more respect for-that’s why I picked up the book.  But in this case, the execution was severely lacking.

The book starts with Lehrer—a Rhodes scholar who studied both neuroscience and humanities as an undergrad—taking a break to read some Proust, as so many of us do.  While reading A la recherche du temps perdu he was struck by Proust’s discussion of eating a madeleine being transported to a scene from his childhood.  Now, far be it from me to question the origin story for this book, but if there’s one thing any cultured intellectual type person knows about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past it’s that it’s really, really long.  And if there’s a second it’s that the taste of a madeleine and tea returns him to the happiness he felt as a child.  However it happened, that passage made him think of how neuroscience has since proved how closely scent is tied to memory, but that Proust was onto it far earlier.

I found the discussion tying Proust’s discussion of how his memory worked to scientific research into memory intersting, but the book never made a strong argument for why we should care outside of an intellectual curiosity.  And the book struggled to defend its thesis-that art often predates science.  Most of the relationships seemed quite tenuous, some of them just seemed wrong.  According to Lehrer, because she said that to be alive is to grow, George Elliot’s books suggested that our personalities are in flux and we are constantly growing and changing.  I’m not entirely sure that she’s the only author who has suggested such a thing, but I am entirely sure that she wasn’t actually arguing that our neurons can repair themselves (a relatively recent discovery) or that our brain is constantly making new neural pathways.  I doubt that what she was saying was even particularly controversial at the time, and certainly not arguing against science.  It just seems a bit of a stretch to say she’s predating official neuroscience.

Elsewhere we have strong connections, but Lehrer never takes the step to show why art may better explain the world than science.  Gertrude Stein’s poetry is highlighted to show that she understood that there were innate building blocks to language long before Chomsky proved that there was a universal grammar.  (  The problem here is that, as Lehrer himself points out, Stein studied psychology and studied writing and language in particular, so it seems odd to make the point that it’s where art and science are clashing.  (There’s also the small problem that the theory of universal grammar has found itself under criticism recently and may not be true.  But I suppose if you had to wait for the science to be settled you could never write about neuroscience.)  What seems undoubtedly true, though, is that Stein found writing and poetry to be a better medium for her to explore the realities of language that psychology.  Why would this be?  Was it purely the hostility of the male students and teachers?  Had science not caught up with what she had to say?  Did she find art to be a better and more useful medium?

Stein seems as if she should be a great jumping off point for a discussion of how art can be used to explore a concept that science may not have explained.  And in other cases perhaps art explores new areas of conscience, describes the human experience in a different way than science does.  Art and science can be complementary paths to helping us understand the world, and art can express truths that we all know but that science has not been able to prove, or has not yet found a way to explore.  This seems the reason that science should actual share more with the humanities.  Instead, Lehrer seems on the verge of actually constructing an argument for more respect for art, but stops short and gets too distracted coming up with crazy coincidences and chasing false comparisons.  Ultimately, we’re left with a few mildly interesting connections and nothing else.  There’s just no there there.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immorta Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

The most affecting part of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is towards the end of the book, from chapter 32.  Throughout the book we are shown the emotional effect of Lacks’ death, and the fame of her cells, on her family.  After Lacks’ death her husband remarried to a woman who abused the children, and in particular the youngest son, Zakariyya (pronounced Zuh-CAR-ee-ah) is portrayed as full of anger towards the world, and in particular white people, Johns Hopkins, scientists, and everyone who he sees as having stolen his mother’s cells.

The author, Rebecca Skloot, takes Zakariyaa and Lacks’ daughter, Deborah, to the Johns Hopkins medical center to meet with a research, Christoph Lengauer, who has offered to show them their mother’s cells and some of the research that’s been done.  Throughout the chapter they see all the parts of the research lab, watch the cells divide through a microscope, and ask questions.  Most importantly, though, for the first time they are able to talk with a researcher about what’s been done with their mother’s cells, and have their anger and conflicted feelings be validated by someone from the scientific and research community.  At the end of the chapter, Lengauer gives them both his cell phone number and tells them to call any time with questions about their mother’s cells.

As we walked towards the elevator, Zakariyya reached up and touched Christoph on the back and said thank you.  Outside, he did the same to me, then turned to catch the bus home.

Deborah and I stood in silence, watching him walk away.  Then she put her arm around me and said, ”Girl, you just witnessed a miracle.

I think most people at this point know the basic outline of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  It received an amazingly positive critical reception, was covered numerous times in the media, and stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for about a year and a half.  Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman, died of cervical cancer in 1951.  She was treated at Johns Hopkins medical center, and some of her cancer cells were collected while she was there, and without her and her family’s informed consent.  These cells, called HeLa as they were identified by her first and last name, became the first, and still the most productive, immortal cell line.  Because they are cloning themselves and identical, they have been used in what seems like almost all medical research over the last fifty years.  Despite this, her family hadn’t ever been told, had no say over what would be done with the cells, and received no monetary compensation.

On the surface, this is what Henrietta Lacks is about.  The complicated, muddy world of medical ethics, or what “informed consent” actually does, the history of medical advancements being made based on biological donations or participation in trials by poor, primarily black, individuals, throughout our nation’s history.  The story of Henrietta Lacks is a wonderful lens through which to examine these questions.  This is because, unlike, say, the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments the taking of and experimenting on Lacks’ cells didn’t involve any blatant wrong doing or clearly unethical action.  A few conspiracy theories to the contrary, it becomes fairly clear through Skloot’s research and reporting that no one actually did anything “wrong”, per se, in the Lacks’ case, and she wasn’t harmed by the experiments on her cell line after she passed.  It’s even more clear that there’s nothing being done wrong by the scientists currently performing research, although several of us might take pause at the thought that we can buy a person’s cells online, or that a cell line can be patented.  And it’s this murky world of ethics that the end of the book focuses on as well, looking at what “informed consent” actually means, and looking briefly at a man who sued after finding out his doctor was profiting off of his own cells.  The court ruled that was fine since the man who produced the cells had agreed to get rid of them as so much medical waste, and it was the doctor that had patented and started selling them.

This is a valuable conversation, and one that we’re still not really having, despite the popularity of this book.  Count me as one of the people who is extremely troubled by the idea of patenting life of any sort.  It makes me squirm.  Even if there is some sort of equity between the person who donated the cells and the doctors and researchers who profit, I still find the whole thing rather sordid.  However, I think this book goes beyond just the thought of medical ethics, and focuses on the real issue: making sure that we see each other as human, that we recognize what comes from other humans, that we are all treated as whole people.

It’s evident in the book, and from the scene I quoted at the beginning, that what’s most important to the Lackses isn’t just the money—although almost all of them are living in poverty and would certainly appreciate it—it’s the lack of recognition they feel for their mother, the lack of respect they’ve had from the scientific community, the lack of consulting with the family about anything that happens with their mother’s cells.  They are pained that scientists celebrate the HeLa cell line, but forget that it’s so named for a real, flesh-and-blood person, Henrietta Lacks.  One gets the sense that they would have been just as hurt to have some money thrown at them grudgingly with an expectation that then they would disappear as they are now.  What was far more valuable was having someone from Johns Hopkins talk to them and recognize them.

This speaks to a larger issue throughout our society, our forgetting that images, names, stories, research cells, memes, political footballs, etc. are attached to real people and the effect that making them famous in any way could have on them.  We often forget to recognize the humanity in others, those we interact with every day, those who have changed lives, even those who just turn into an internet meme, or, even worse, find themselves at the center of an internet firestorm over nothing.  We ignore the humans and families behind political stories and grieving parents find themselves or their deceased children the targets of social media attacks if they have dared to speak up, or just end up in the news.

Recently, there have been rules passed around medical research requiring informed consent, and also that any identifying information be stripped from cells or other medical “waste” that is used for research to preserve confidentiality and avoid future books like this one.  And to avoid lawsuits from people who want to be compensated for their cells.  Informed consent and confidentiality are good, and I’m glad that this book has brought many issues of medical research to people’s attention.  But even more than that I hope this book teaches us to recognize every person we interact with as a human, with a family deserving of respect.  That there is nothing more important than recognizing and preserving the dignity of every human being.