Adventures in Human Being: A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum
by Gavin Francis
c.2015, Basic Books; $26.99 / $33.99 Canada; 253 pages
The scar on the top of your forearm looks almost like a crescent.
You got it so long ago that you don’t remember how it happened; so long that your fingers hardly notice it anymore. Your knobby knees, whirly ears, wrinkled cheeks, in fact, are all familiar, but do you really know your body like… well, like the back of your hand? Read Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis, and you will.
When Gavin Francis was a child, he wanted to someday create maps and explore life. Instead, he says, “As I grew older that impulse shifted from mapping the world around to the one we carry within.”
Francis, in other words, became a doctor and in this book, he shares his enchantment with it.
Starting with “a beautiful object” inside our heads, Francis expresses wonder at the human brain, which holds our thoughts, ideas, emotions, and individuality. That exquisite fact belies toughness: it’s a complicated organ that can suffer potentially complicated disorders.
In the interest of knowing how eyes work, Isaac Newton experimented on himself in a cringe-worthy exercise that, surprisingly, didn’t permanently blind him. Francis, on the other hand, explains how, “through our vision ,we are in communication with the sun and stars.”
Moving downward, he writes of knowing what kind of life someone had by examining the facial muscles of their cadaver, and of Leonardo da Vinci and why he followed “men with particularly ugly faces” around Milan.
In remembering a near-miss on a motorcycle, Francis explains why a “most ancient” sense can make us seasick and how an otolaryngologist discovered a cure for a malady that had been around for millennia. He explains where accidentally inhaled food is likely to fall, and he casually mentions an important follow-up for breast cancer patients. We learn how modern warfare has changed the statistics on upper-limb injuries, why crucifixion stories are sometimes wrong, how a Dutch physician braved the Nazis to create a lifesaving machine, why you shouldn’t be embarrassed to discuss things with your doctor, and why it’s truly miraculous that we’re even born.
What do you see when you look in a mirror? Most people will admit to noticing a flaw or three, but once you’ve read Adventures in Human Being, you’ll see yourself quite differently.
With the curiosity of a scientist and a doctor’s ability to explain, author Gavin Francis takes readers on a head-to-toe journey with a lot of revealing detours. It’s on these sideroads that we learn delightful little facts about what makes us tick (or doesn’t), why we move and act and digest and excrete as we do, and how an organ that gives life can take it away, too. Francis also offers readers history and medical science here, and he polishes them off with personal stories that are often very touching.
This book starts out a bit slow but it shouldn’t take long to find the delight in it. Just a few pages of Adventures in Being Human, and you’ll be glad you’ve got your hands on it.
Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri is a professional book reviewer who has been reading since she was 3 years old and she never goes anywhere without a book.