Tuesday, May 23, 2017

An Incredibly Belated Review of James Hamblin's Terrific New(ish) Book

Full disclosure: I received an e-copy of Hamblin's If Our Bodies Could Talk: A Guide to Operating and Maintaining a Human Body for review from James' publisher Doubleday. I should also disclose, I was likely predisposed to enjoying this book as I've long been incredibly fond of Hamblin's Twitter feed and Atlantic pieces. I'd have written this sooner, but I have this rule of not writing about things I haven't actually read myself and it took me longer than I expected - not because I didn't enjoy it, but more because I fall asleep in about two seconds flat every night. Also, if you use the Amazon links I provide, Amazon will send me a tiny commission.
James Hamblin is a medical doctor. But he doesn't practice medicine in its traditional seeing his own patients sense, instead his practice involves the translation of health into words for whoever wants to read them as he decided to pursue journalism and writing rather than the much safer path of radiology. Hamblin's main platform is his work with The Atlantic where he's a senior editor, and he's also a must-follow (if you like wonderfully dry humour) on Twitter.

Hamblin's book, If Our Bodies Could Talk: A Guide to Operating and Maintaining a Human Body, was published back in December. Simply, it's a collection of questions spanning various topics about health, the human body, followed of course by Hamblin's science-informed answers. It's also a lot of fun.

From questions like,
"Why don't eyelashes keep growing"
(and answers that include, "For three months, then, the hair is called a "club hair". It is, like so many people in clubs, outwardly fin-looking but actually dead at the roots"), to
"Does the G-spot exist?"
(and Hamblin's admonishment, "never liken it to a bike tire"), to
"What about Smartwater?"
(where Hamblin helps you to learn that "electrolyte enhanced" means "bullshit"), the book covers a lot of ground.

Because each question and answer are fairly short, the book makes for excellent bed time reading (in that sense it reminded me some of another book I loved - Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything). And along with the humour and pith, comes a great deal that's both fascinating and informative (did you know that the hyperbole of carrot eating leading to better night vision arose in part as an attempt to conceal Britain's discovery of radar in World War II, or that Ben Carson (yes, that Ben Carson), played an important role in the treatment of an exceedingly rare and devastating brain disease?).

So why do you need this book when you can simply Google those very same questions? I think Hamblin covers this aptly by noting that
"Googling health information is roughly as reliable for finding objective answers as picking up a pamphlet on the subway floor"
The book is a delight. Suitable too for those parents like me who want to teach their children, without lecturing, that critical appraisal is sadly necessary in this day and age (another recommendation here is to listen to the podcast Science Vs. with them).

If you're looking for a book that entertains while it educates and you'd like to purchase a copy for yourself, here's an Amazon link to it for my American readers. And if you're living here in Canada - this one's for you (though at least when I was typing this, it would still be cheaper to use the American link).

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