Friday, March 6, 2009

C. Keith Conners

C. Keith Conners, PhD, has taught at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Harvard, the University of Pittsburgh, George Washington University, and Duke. He is Professor Emeritus of Medical Psychology at Duke University Medical School.

Conners is the author of five books, including Feeding the Brain: How Foods Affect Children, and 200 scientific articles.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I am usually reading several books at a time, switching between different genres as the mood strikes me. I read mysteries, legal thrillers, psychology, cosmology, some current events, and a variety of other books that I stumble on and become curious about. Here is a sampling of my recent choices:

The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby. Susan was a college contemporary of mine forty years ago , and seemed to have already read everything as an undergraduate. This recent book of hers is a summing up of her lifetime of pondering the tastes, style and content of literature and education in the United States. The book is lengthy, one might even perhaps say ponderous, and will not suit one interested in a quick and light reading. But one has to respect the insightful way she weaves together a great many strands in American literature and thought.

Basically her thesis is that there has been a progressive dumbing down of the intellectual and rational in education and literature in this country, perhaps triggered in the Nixon years and ending with the neo-cons of today. She takes as her standard the brilliant founders of our country, and traces the many facets of the anti-scientific and anti-intellectual core in science education, politics, and the media that began a hundred years later. Her arguments are persuasive, though at times she herself has trouble distinguishing between opinion and fact, and will irritate some with her lack of evidence in several crucial arguments. Nevertheless, the book rang true most of the time, and gives pause about the dreadful state of American education.

What was most interesting to me was her analysis of a number of literary sensations of the past that I had always felt uncomfortable about myself, without quite knowing why, despite the rave reviews; and now I know that I was responding to that same form of unreason which this author skillfully brings to light.

The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. Eric Weiner is a reporter who began to wonder what makes people happy. He decided to travel around the world to find out if there were places where people were really happy. Of course, first he had to define what "happiness" means, and so stumbled upon a professor who was studying exactly that. Amidst clouds of smoke from reefers and bongs in Amsterdam he began his quest with the help of the professor's tutelage. The subsequent sojourn to exotic places is described with charm and wit, and one can never be quite sure how serious the project is through the jocular gaze of Mr. Weiner. This was a tremendously funny and yet ultimately quite thoughtful search for the meaning of happiness through starkly contrasting ecologies around the world. Weiner eventually comes to a conclusion about the place where happiness is most likely to be found, and the search is what makes this book hard to put down. Like all good mysteries, the solution is right there when you know how to look.

The Head Trip: Adventures on The Wheel of Consciousness by Jeff Warren. If you have ever wondered what scientists do in those sleep laboratories, and why some of your dreams are amazingly lifelike while others are just boring little oddities, you might enjoy this book. You may have wondered why you wake up at regular intervals, seem wide awake then fall back asleep, and end up thinking you have a sleep disorder. You probably don't, and this book looks at the history of researches that delve into such phenomena.

The book is not high science but still is actually an interesting project carried out by a young man with a lot of persistence and time on his hands. Jeff Warren sets out to personally experience the varieties of levels of consciousness that are available to us during waking and dreaming and under study by many different professionals (and some not-so-professional new-age types). He gets many recordings by different sleep scientists during different phases of sleep, as well as "neurofeedback" to control his own brain rhythms, and some adventures in promoting lucid dreams. While a more scientific summary would have been desirable, nevertheless the book makes a useful point about the variety of stages of conscious awareness that our brains are capable of, and some of the possibilities of gaining control over those mind states.

A Patent Lie by Paul Goldstein. Good legal thrillers are hard to come by. Most of them seem to be concoctions of flimsy court room dramatics and racy love interests gone wrong and that lack the feel of real life. More often than not the good guys and bad guys are so grossly sketched that you can foretell the outcome after page 3. I was therefore quite captured by this interesting first time novel by a patent lawyer, which both taught me something and gave me a true-to-life complex story involving issues that matter.

"Patent law?" you say. "How can that be interesting?" Having worked with a lot of pharmaceutical companies in my time as part of my own studies of treatment for mental illness, I can assure you that the intensity and drama around the patenting of new drugs is a fruitful area for high crimes and misdemeanors. In this novel a large overseas drug company and a small local company are engaged in a dispute about the patent for a new drug that promises to have a major impact upon the worldwide AIDS epidemic. There is a question of possible murder of one of the developers of the drug, and a suspicion of possible falsification of data in the drug development. The legal issues are complex but clearly depicted by an author who knows his business. I found this a very satisfying and intriguing novel about real-world issues very close to home.

Finally I would like to mention a mystery set in a modern day political framework that was also instructive and entertaining: Ghost by Robert Harris. This book quickly draws you into its story before you realize why. The first level is probably because the writing is so witty and graceful that you immediately feel entertained.

At another level you feel drawn to the author-protagonist because of his self-deprecating humor and the acceptance of his fate, which is to be a ghost writer rather than a "real" writer. The politics of being a ghost writer, always humbly in the background, while nevertheless creating stunning works for celebrity non-authors gives insight into the mind of actual ghost-writers, whom Harris liberally quotes in each chapter.

Then of course there is a level of political analysis thinly veiled from the real world of a discredited (in Harris' mind) Tony Blair. Harris hits upon a deep sense of regret felt by many of us because of Blair's foolish entanglement with the arrogant American president in the Iraq war. As one who admired Blair's entertaining performances in Parliament (seen at home on C-Span) I can heartily share the sense of tragedy of a great man who, like Chamberlain, falls from grace by committing a remarkable stupidity of judgment. While the Prime Minister in this story is fictional, the parallels with Blair are inescapable.

Finally, there is the plot itself, which starts off with a suspicious death, weaves its way into the private life of the fallen PM, maintains a sense of urgency and tension until the climax is revealed, in the best tradition of mystery thrillers. The value of this book is that it is much more than a thriller, without eroding the central plot.

A wholly entertaining, engrossing, and instructive book. This one immediately sent me looking for other books by this exceptional writer. None have been disappointing. Harris also wrote Imperium which is the story of Rome's greatest orator and lawyer, Cicero. This too is a kind of mystery story but on a grander scale in a political arena that is so vicious it kind of reminds one of the present.
--Marshal Zeringue