This blog has been very quiet of late and this time it is not due to any malfeasance on my part. On 3 Dec I met with a most unfortunate accident on the Simon’s Town waterfront which left me with a totally non-functional and rapidly ballooning right knee. To cut an uninspiring story of medical ineptitude short I eventually found my way to the rooms of an outstanding orthopaedic surgeon who made the right diagnosis, avulsion of my suprapatellar tendon, and operated on me the next day (11 Dec) to reattach the damaged right quadriceps muscle to the kneecap. My recovery was further complicated by a fluid balance meltdown (if you will excuse the non-technical shorthand for a much more complex story) which resulted in me passing 3.5 litres of urine daily and sleepless nights. Once again effective medical intervention eventually stabilised the situation before serious harm was done.
The point of this blog is not simply to recount my personal medical misfortunes or the darker corners of our health care system (since I intend to write more fully on that topic in a more appropriate forum) but rather to mention one of the silver linings of this difficult time: the re-discovery of books. For some time my life seemed to be too full to engage with one of my favourite childhood loves, reading. Reading everything from the Readers Digest to the classified ads in the Farmers Weekly to Anna Karenina, and everything in between. I missed my once intimate relationship with books and promised to get back to it, but the pressures of life and access to limitless information and opinion available on the internet conspired to keep us separate except for fleeting liaisons every now and again.
Now there was no excuse. Even before my accident I had made a serious effort to re-engage and while on holiday I was able to read a brilliant and enlightening exploration of the limits of human knowledge by Nate Silver entitled “The Signal and the Noise” plus a couple of other interesting but less transformative books. But the accident and subsequent events removed many lingering obstacles.and in the past few weeks, despite the physical and emotional discomfort, I have managed to read a couple of exceptionally powerful books.
The first was a novel of exceptional stylistic and structural virtuosity allied to a remarkable ability to viscerally convey the oppressive, dehumanising effects of a totalitarian political culture and the horrors of warfare without ever descending into cliche. The author, Anthony Doerr, contrasts this bleak terrain with the individual life-affirming, human spirit. It is not light holiday reading but “All the light we cannot see” falls into the into the category of transformative books; books which through their emotional power and intelligence induce in the reader a ground-shift in mindset so that one never looks at the world in quite the same way again.
Another book which promises to be of a similar calibre is “The secret history of the human race...” by Christine Kenneally. A final verdict cannot be passed since I am not yet halfway through it, but with its mix of intimate detail and broad scholarship it is a wonderful example of the humanities and science uniting to create something special. In essence the book recounts the story of genealogy which stands at an important interface between molecular (DNA) biology, informatics and the more traditional disciplines of history, archeology – and many others besides. We are living in an era of unparalleled consilience and I count myself lucky to have tasted the beginnings of this brave new world in my lifetime.
Finally for an interesting summary of the major political events and characters which have impacted on South Africa over the past two decades written from a journalist’s perspective and with a journalist’s skill in condensation and clarification, “Ragged Glory” by Ray Hartley is most definitely a worthwhile holiday read for the politically inclined.
Till next time.