Amputations and Aesculapian advice

The November-December workload has consisted chiefly of dry, dusty leather-bound medical texts from the late 1700s to mid-1800s. I have inhaled more 200-year-old dust than any human ever could have wanted, but otherwise I’ve had fun. As you might suspect, the medical knowledge of this era is not what you would call sophisticated. Arsenic is a favorite homeopathic remedy, miscarriages are a mystery (maybe you didn’t take enough arsenic throughout your pregnancy?), and blood-letting ranks highly as a cure-all. And whereas breastmilk today is proven to be ambrosia for sick and premature babies, if you nursed those little wains too long back in the 1800s you were actually thought to be damaging them more. Observe:

“There is one grand mistake, however, against which I must caution young mothers; which is, not to indulge the vain expectation that feeble infants will become robust, in proportion to their indulgence. On the contrary, it is the more necessary to be strict with feeble children, because they are feeble. To keep them hanging at the breast to invigorate them, is the very way to counteract our own intentions, and defeat our own purpose. Seasons of entire rest are even more important to their stomachs than to those of other persons.” -Wm. A. Alcott*, The Young Mother, or Management of Children in Regard to Health (1836)

*Second cousin of Louisa May Alcott’s father

Poor wains.

Quack science of course continues to exert itself into the 21st century, but I won’t bore you with an obvious diatribe. Moving on, here’s a sample title from one of these medical texts: Eight Chirugical Treatises, on These Following Heads: Tumours, Ulcers, Of Diseases of the Anus, Of the King’s Evil, Of Wounds, Of Gun-Shot Wounds, Of Fractures and Luxations, of the Lues Venerea. Ah. Roll that around in your mouth for a bit. The King’s evil was a term for scrofula, a form of tuberculosis affecting the lymph nodes. It does not look pleasant.

I don’t know whether amputations of the leg at the hip-joint could be called better or worse than scrofula. One of the other books I came across was George Otis’s A Report On Amputations At The Hip-Joint In Military Surgery (1867). I particularly like how some of the soldiers are posed like Odalisques, in various states of undress. Observe:


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The King’s Speech: Reality vs. Film

This week I attempted to finish The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi. A Colin Firth film this is not. It begins briskly enough, with a comprehensive but concise biography of Mark Logue’s grandad Lionel Logue from birth until Logue’s transplant from his native Australia to London. Not surprisingly, there is far less drama in the bio than in the film. Although Prince Albert (the future King George VI) struggles mightily with a stutter before seeking out Logue’s assistance, the speech therapist’s treatment puts the Prince’s enunciation on an upward trajectory that never really flags. In fact, he made such good progress that he might never have needed Logue’s services again had it not been for his unexpected rise to the throne.

There is no climax in a cinematic sense. Extraordinary events happen–King George V dies, Albert’s brother David takes the throne as King Edward VII and abdicates shortly after for the love of a twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson, leaving the underprepared Prince Albert to take the reins. World War II breaks out. The new King George VI calls on Logue whenever major speeches arise. The story is calm and factual. Extraordinary, to be sure, but not the most exciting read.

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Borges y Mi

Last week at Milner Library’s Special Collections, where I volunteer, I inventoried the Italian collection. There were some lovely old volumes of Dante, with stiff vellum bindings and hand-lettered spines. The oldest book I came across was from 1593. The collection has only one incunable, so books from the 1500s are as aged as I am likely to see.

Today’s big find, though, was a hardbound edition of one of Jorge Luis Borges’s The Congress, published in 1974 by the Enitharmon Press and signed by the translator, editor . . . and Borges himself.

I do not envy anyone trying to transcribe his manuscripts.

This is not the first nor the last time I will say this, but I am an ardent romantic when it comes to signatures. Just two weeks ago I was rearranging–and by extension culling–my own book collection. My husband and I both own volumes of Ficciones, one hardcover and the other softcover, but I couldn’t bear to part with either. One can never have too much Borges, I thought. And today, his signature was beneath my fingers. He died the day after I was born, so this is the closest I can ever get to shaking his hand, to looking into his eyes,, or lolling on his floor like a plump white cat. That is the experience I have looking upon the signature of somebody whose words have sunk numinous into me.

Briefly, my other diverting finds today were of the Arts & Crafts persuasion. First, a set of Little Journeys signed by Elbert Hubbard and the illustrator who hand-colored the volumes. Then, a striking morocco-bound book, the binding all teal and silver falling stars, which when opened was a collection of Samuel Taylor Coleridge poems by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press. My husband and I are dedicated Arts & Crafts admirers, so its always a treat to see books by the movement’s founding fathers.


(Apologies for the grainy cell-phone pictures.)

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The Princess Bride

Because the first post is always the hardest, I’ll begin with a book review. I’m reading William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.

Ah, The Princess Bride. I might have seen the movie adaptation as a kid but it wasn’t formative for me (although I came to appreciate its cheekiness and non-sequiturs as an adult). I discovered a brand-new copy of the book in a thrift store a couple weeks ago and have been reading it as an escape from the looming responsibilities of grad school.

Like Wuthering Heights, it is a nested story. But unlike the film adaptation, the bookends are not Peter Falk and his grandson, but William Goldman and his life. Real elements of his life. In fact, I was so tricked by his blending of fictional details with autobiographical ones that I had to Google The Princess Bride and make sure that there really was no S. Morgenstern. Even though I’ve been working in bookstores for years and knew that Morgenstern was a literary device. That’s how good Goldman is.

So far it’s a swift and smooth read, a veritable creme brulee of books. With frequent asides delivered within parentheses–asides ostensibly from Morgenstern but impossible to divorce from the author himself–it is meta-fictional from start to finish. Also provocative is Goldman’s subversion of the romantic fairy tale. Here is a love story told from a man’s caustic point of view. Lest Goldman be accused of sexism, he is cynical toward the behavior of both men and women in a very Jane Austen sort of way. I’m only a third of the way through, but it is a delight to read.

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