Friday, October 12, 2012

Nathaniel Comfort

Nathaniel Comfort is associate professor, Department of the History of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, and a participant in The Oral History of Human Genetics project. His new book is The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine.

Recently I asked Comfort what he was reading. His reply:
Books are like people. I don’t just read them; I have relationships with them. And—don’t judge me—I’m a polyamorous reader. I think that, if one is open about it, one can be involved with many at once.

I read a lot of science-writing and history-of-science blogs—a lot of terrific material comes out online nowadays, even for historians. But these I read fast and mostly forget. It’s people-watching, with a little flirtation now and then.

For a harmless fling, I picked up Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence (I love a good writing manual), but I think I’m going to end the relationship. Frankly, I’m bored. Its own sentences have no spark for me. So it sits, plaintively splayed on my bedside table. I’m thinking of shelving it and calling on some old friends: my dogeared but ever elegant Strunk and White, and perhaps Anne Lamott’s lyrical, witty Bird by Bird.

I have a deeper relationship with Nikolas Rose’s The Politics of Life Itself. It’s a muscular book, large and dense and a little intimidating. Rose argues that all politics—broadly construed—is becoming about life, health, physiology, and genes. Biomedicine is fundamentally a kind of engineering. The question for Rose is not whether that’s okay—it’s happening, like it or not—but rather how we are going to go about it. As we become “biological citizens,” how can we maintain the values, morals, and goals that make us human? We have our arguments—I think, for example, that Rose is rather sanguine about “individual eugenics”—but we communicate well.

But at night what I come home to these days is Richard Powers’s The Time of Our Singing. It’s a sprawling novel of race, family, time, and music in Black America. Powers’s prose is so lovely I sometimes steal away for a quickie of 3-5 pages, savoring his sentences, and marveling at the literary devices and the insights into humanity. I delay the day when I close its back cover, because though I trust we’ll meet up again, there’s nothing like the first time.
Read more about The Science of Human Perfection, and visit Nathaniel Comfort's blog.

--Marshal Zeringue