I’ve been taking in a lot of non-fiction lately, which, though unusual for me, is the stuff that’s got me fired up right now. Maybe it’s because, although my undergraduate education is over (the most palpable tragedy is the fact that my days of courses-browsing and textbook shopping at Labyrinth are at an end) I feel like I’m only just entering a new era in my life in which I learn, learn, learn.
I’ve been leaning heavily on two subjects. One is Russian history, which makes a lot of sense in terms of my imminent departure for Moscow. I read Lenin’s Tomb, about the fall of the Soviet Union, a very intimate and fascinating biography of Stalin, a history of the Revolution, and now I’m in the middle of a biography of Peter the Great recommended to me by a friend (who went to St. Petersburg on account of this book and by the way does a very accurate and hilarious Russian accent).
The other subject is medicine, and right now I’m reading a great history of medicine by Sherwin Nuland, a professor of surgery at Yale who apparently taught the history of the medicine to some lucky undergraduates (I hope not in my four years, that would have been yet another great professor I would have missed out on). The chapter I just finished on the origins of anesthesia was one I’d been really looking forward to. I had always sort of wondered where we got anesthesia and when. Nuland described the pre-anesthesia days of surgery as, not surprisingly, horrible and tortuous for the patient as well as for the surgeon, who had to do his healing work on a screaming, writhing patient and who found it hard to reconcile his mission as a doctor with the excruciating pain caused by his work. Though there was a very serious need for anesthesia, drugs like nitrous oxide (laughing gas) were in their earliest days, the 1840s, used for parties and entertainments for gentlemen before they were introduced into medicine. There’s a great advertisement in the book for a “Grand Exhibition” of laughing gas: “the effect of the gas is to make those who inhale it, either LAUGH, SING, DANCE, SPEAK OR FIGHT, etc etc… n.b. The Gas will be administered only to gentlemen of the first respectability. The object is to make the entertainment in every respect, a genteel affair.”
This chapter had another gem, which was a quote of Louis Pasteur’s inserted to explain how the “discovery” of anesthesia was more than just a lucky accident:
“Where observation is concerned, chance favors only the prepared mind.”
This made me think not only about science but about my upcoming trip to Russia and how my goal when I’m there, besides becoming fluent in Russian, will be to take away observations and insights about Russian life. It makes me feel that my preparation, with history books and with my attempt to improve my language with newspapers, books and TV in advance of my departure, is going to be worthwhile and is going to get my mind ready for making the most of the experience.