February 11, 2013

  • Memoirs

    Okay, this is going to sound too tepid to be called a recommendation, but it really is meant as one.

    The trouble is, I’m not all that into memoirs.  This is probably an excellent showing in that genre, but it is not excellent enough to make me forget that it’s a memoir.

    Don’t pick it up for the writing.  God’s Hotel is not elegant or well-organized or even (I’m sorry to say) impeccably grammatical.  It sometimes has the clunky feeling of a hurried sermon: “And what I learned from that is . . .”

    And nothing about it is particularly novel or hard-hitting.  No stunning revelations of clandestine political maneuverings or ancient medical secrets, no plan for sale, no new discoveries to report.

    But it is thoughtful and good-hearted, and that makes it worth reading despite its shortcomings.

    Perhaps to call them shortcomings is a little hasty.  The author, an MD who worked at one of the country’s last almshouses while earning her PhD in medieval medical history, does have a genuine contribution to make, and her writing mimics, almost enacts, that contribution.

    Her clinical experience at a hospital for the poor in San Francisco and her research interest in Hildegard of Bingen’s medical practices combine to train her in the virtues of what she calls Slow Medicine.  She finds the efficiencies of modern “health care” (a pejorative term whose provenance and contrast with “medicine” is never fully explained) to be less effective and more expensive than a medical system that has sufficient “give” built into itself.

    She has several stories to that effect–stories of the give, the time formerly built into the practice of medicine.  The story of the knitting head nurse was the sweetest, but all of them called to mind the sort of old-fashioned, idealized medicine that all of us want to have practiced on us but none of us feel we can afford (much less afford to give away to indigents).

    More effective than any of her stories, however, is a deft little touch that appears two or three times in the narrative.  Learning that something important would happen for a patient at a particular time, she “kept track of the time” so that she could show up.  It struck me that only someone who does not live by the clock, whose every working or even waking hour is not ordered by that mechanical tyrant, notices when she has to remember a particular time.  What a gift, indeed.

    The occasional clunkiness of the writing or the modesty of the thoughts advanced are, perhaps, part of the author’s contribution.  One doesn’t need perfectly elegant prose, impeccable grammar, stunning insights, or shocking revelations in order to have something worth writing about, any more than one needs the most modern equipment, gleaming chrome facilities, elegant artwork, and high-powered specialists to do medicine well.

    So, this is worth a read.  It is thoughtful, though not necessarily thought-provoking; idealistic, but not necessarily idealized; sensitive, but not remotely saccharine.  It is not as engaging or as informative as, say, an Atul Gawande book, but it is a different kind of book.  I think it might be growing on me.

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