This weekend I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I generally prefer non-fiction to fiction, and tend to read historical biographies, particularly biographies of accomplished women. Most recently I have read the biography Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, by Brenda Maddox; the biography Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd; and the biography Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin. All three of these books not only provide detailed descriptions of the era when these women lived, but also give fascinating insights into the hurdles that they had to overcome in order to accomplish their goals in periods in history when their fields were very much male-dominated. The books are thoughtful in that they reveal character traits in each of these women that helped them make their great contributions despite these challenges and against all odds. The books nonetheless also explore traits that may have hindered them in fully achieving recognition in their own time. The books about scientists (Merian and Franklin) also reveal the history of their particular fields of science, which I find fascinating, in the context of what we know about these fields today.Esther M. Sternberg, M.D., author of the newly released Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being and The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions, has done extensive research on brain-immune interactions and the effects of the brain's stress response on health. She was on the faculty at Washington University, St. Louis, prior to joining the National Institutes of Health in 1986.
The most recent book I am reading in this genre is not about one individual, but is rather an ensemble biography: A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Martin Johnson Heade by Christopher Benfey. Rather than focusing on the challenges faced by the women in this cast, it addresses the challenges of the era surrounding the civil war in the United States, and the role that these intellectuals who all knew each other, played in the abolitionist movement. The symbolism of hummingbirds as a symbol of freedom figures prominently throughout the book, whether depicted in the written or spoken word, or in paintings, by each of these highly creative people. Their foibles and weaknesses of character, and how these did or did not impact their creative products and geniuses are also explored.
When I do read fiction, it is often historical fiction. Most recently I have read Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks, and am part way through Saving the World: A Novel by Julia Alvarez. Both books explore the personal impact on the books’ characters of the great infectious scourges of these eras – in the case of Year of Wonders, the impact of the plague in 17th century England, and in Saving the World, the impact of smallpox globally, from the point of view of a woman of early 19th century Spain, alternating with the story of the fear of AIDS in a woman of our own time.
Finally, one of my favorite fiction writers is Jhumpa Lahiri, whose short stories in Unaccustomed Earth and The Namesake I love to read, both for their lyricism and poetic style, as well as for their subject matter of adjusting to life in a new country and culture. These stories resonate with me in part because I am a first generation Canadian/American, whose parents came from Romania before and after World War II. The experience of having a foot in two cultures has also deeply informed my own writing.
I find all these books interesting not only from a historical, scientific and psychological perspective, but also in terms of their dramatic structure and literary style. Their ability to make the reader keep reading, and to raise suspense through the arc of their stories, helps me in my structuring my own non-fiction books on different aspects of the science of the mind body interaction (The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions Holt, 2001; and Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being Harvard University Press, 2009). In my books, I try to make the reader feel like they are right there with the scientists whose characters and discoveries I describe. I am convinced that science can be presented to readers who do not have a scientific background in a compelling, interesting, accessible, non-condescending and even poetic and lyrical way, all held together by the glue of narrative. Reading these books provides me important insights on how to continue to do so for my own readers.
Read an excerpt from Healing Spaces, and learn more about the book at the Harvard University Press website.
Dr. Sternberg is internationally recognized for her discoveries in brain-immune interactions and the effects of the brain's stress response on health: the science of the mind-body interaction. A dynamic speaker, recognized by her peers as a spokesperson for the field, she translates complex scientific subjects in a highly accessible manner, with a combination of academic credibility, passion for science and compassion as a physician. Learn more about her research, publications, and professional activities at Esther M. Sternberg's website.