The Greatest Benefit to Mankind

Posted by Brian Tue, 27 Apr 2010 01:39:00 GMT

The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity
By Roy Porter


In college I took a history class called Changing Concepts of Health and Illness that was taught by the best professor I ever had, Theodore Brown. He brought immense knowledge and passion for the topic to bear in an engaging fashion that made me look forward to going to every class. The main text for that class was The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, but we only covered about somewhere from one-third to a half of it. Ever since then it has sat on my bookshelf until I finally got around to reading the whole thing. Unfortunately, without Professor Brown’s teaching to go with it, the book shows itself to be overwhelming in its efforts to be comprehensive.

Roy Porter sets out to provide the reader with a comprehensive history of medicine from a Western perspective. The problem is that the topic is simply too large to handle in the manner he attempts. When covering a topic this large there must be some sort of narrative or flow to propel the reader forward. In this case though Porter has written in a very dry, encyclopedic style. Names are thrown at the reader so fast they just become a blur. In many sections multiple names are thrown out and then one is referred back to and it is difficult to remember who did what.

I can’t help compare this book against Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, which I just finished this weekend (review forthcoming). Diamond took on a similarly daunting task of tracing the why’s of 13,000 years of history, but he did it in a narrative way. He clearly set forth his goals to the reader and followed through. When taking on a monumental subject you must give the reader goals to be reading for. Guns, Germs, and Steel would have been nowhere near as successful if we had wrote it in Porter’s style.

The Greatest Benefit to Mankind is probably best served in the way Professor Brown used it: as a supplement to a conversation on Western medicine. It serves very well as reference material, helped by its enormous index. Don’t read the whole thing though.

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Ender's Game

Posted by Brian Sun, 04 Apr 2010 20:27:00 GMT

Ender’s Game
By Orson Scott Card


Ender’s Game has been on my reading list for years, but I just got to it last month. It is considered a classic of science fiction and propelled Card into the upper echelon of sci-fi authors. I wanted to concentrate on the controversies surrounding the novel here, but it seem that many of those include details from later books in the series. I would rather read those before reading about the controversies in detail and forming an opinion. Instead I will simply share some thoughts on the foreword to the version I read form Orson Scott Card.

In that foreword he briefly discusses the treatment of the gifted in our society, mainly the assumption that children are not capable of complex thoughts. I have always found this view to be ridiculous. Of course Card takes this to the opposite extreme by having Ender’s siblings manipulate humanity from a young age, leading to one ruling Earth and another leading the first expedition to an alien planet. However, there is a vast middle ground between those two extremes that most children fall into and it important to recognize that there is vast spread in that middle ground. Our current education system mostly ignores these differences though.

I’m not going much of anywhere with this and I’m having a serious case of writer’s block so let me just say that Ender’s Game is a fabulous morality tale told through the eyes of children and the adults manipulating them. Card’s writing consciously avoids needlessly complicated language, something he disdains. Card’s portrayal of Ender as sympathetic character may be tough for some to swallow, but it will certainly make you think.

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