What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

May 18, 2015 Issue

The piece in this week’s issue that most absorbed me is Joshua Rothman’s "Anatomy of Error." It’s a review of neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s memoir, Do No Harm. Medical writing is, for me, a relatively new interest. I trace my appetite for it to a quartet of elegant Jerome Groopman pieces that appeared last year: “How Memory Works” (The New York Review of Books, May 22, 2014); “The Transformation” (The New Yorker, September 15, 2014); “When Doctors Admit They Went Wrong” (The New York Review of Books, November 6, 2014); “Print Thyself” (The New Yorker, November 24, 2014). Groopman writes a graceful, plain-English-style prose. Judging from the quotations in Rothman’s piece, it seems that Marsh’s style is similar – plainspoken, eloquent. Rothman calls Marsh “the Knausgaard of neurosurgery: he writes about his errors because he wants to confess them, and because he’s interested in his inner life and how it’s been changed, over time, by the making of mistakes.” I find Marsh’s willingness to confess and explore his errors fascinating. I applaud his factuality. Groopman, in his excellent “When Doctors Admit They Went Wrong,” a review of Terrence Holt’s Internal Medicine: A Doctor’s Stories, criticizes Holt for not recounting recollections of exact events. Holt offered “parables,” i.e., “assemblages drawn from a variety of sources, compiled from multiple cases, transformed according to the logic not of journalism but of parable, seeking to capture the essence of something too complex to be understood any other way” (Holt’s words). Groopman says,

I was taken aback by Holt’s assertion that only the form of parable can “capture the essence to something too complex to be understood any other way.” Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” is an illuminating parable, as are the medical tales of Chekhov, Turgenev, and Kafka. But the nonfiction stories of Oliver Sacks, Robert Coles, Richard Selzer, and Sherwin Nuland, as well as potent new voices of young doctors like Danielle Ofri, Leah Kaminsky, and Christine Montross, certainly capture the essence and complexity of the clinical world.

Add Henry Marsh to the list. Rothman says, “Do No Harm is an act of atonement, an anatomy of error, and an attempt to answer, from the inside, a startling question: How can someone spend decades cutting into people’s brains and emerge whole?”      

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