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Book Reviews #46 and #51: Obi-Wan Error - The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal
July 31st, 2007
09:35 am


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Book Reviews #46 and #51: Obi-Wan Error

I messed up my numbering last time, so let’s go back and backfill. Vincent Bugliosi is still occupying a disproportionate percentage of my readingness, but there are two others now – including possibly the best book I’ve read this year:

Book #46: The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman
When I got this book, I was expecting more of a “zombies have eaten us, how do the cities rot?” style of prose… And in that, I was disappointed.

In case you haven’t heard, “The World Without Us” is a book on what would happen to the towns and cities and savannahs if all the human beings disappeared one day. The reason behind our disappearance is not given – could be the rapture, could be plague, could be aliens Hoovering us up into a spaceship.

The core question that World Without Us attempts to answer is, “What will humanity’s legacy be once we're gone?”

As an apocalyptic reference guide, it’s not big on detail. There’s a brief two chapters on how houses disintegrate and a fascinating but all-too-short chapter on what happens to New York City after we go (short version: they pump tens of millions of gallons of water out from under the city right now to keep it stable, so there’d be a flood in less than a month followed by toppling skyscrapers).

What I got, however, was something much richer and deeper. Something I’d recommend to anyone.

Weisman understands that the only way to show what the world is like without us is to show how we’re impacting the world right now. I got into a brief argument with someone whose take on global warming was, “We’re so small, and the Earth is so big, there’s no way we could affect a whole planet, so global warming is bunk.”

Weisman makes no predictions on global warming (the data isn’t conclusive enough for him to forecast whether we’ve hit a tipping point or not), but he does persuasively show how the sheer numbers of humans are affecting the whole planet in drastic ways. He talks about how much thicker and wilder forests used to be – the fairy tales weren’t just made to be scary, the trees and bugs and predators in the woods used to be a lot denser before we cut the good stuff down and isolated the woods between cities and suburbs. And he shows us glimpses of those good old days by traveling to demilitarized zones, the only places where humans really don’t go on a regular basis, and showing how quickly life grows back.

The fascinating thing about The World Without Us is how it strikes a delicate balance between terror and wonder. Weisman knows how tenacious life is, clinging on in the most bizarre of locations, and he knows life will survive somehow. You can’t help but be struck with awe at how efficient life is, adapting to anything.

But at the same time, a lot of non-human life is having a hard time making it in the wake of humanity. You can see how much easier things would be for the planet without us, and how much harm we’re doing in our search for short-term comfort. Weisman doesn’t talk about apocalyptic scenarios of total collapse, since he trusts that life will adapt… But at the same time, the time scale it’ll take before the Earth recovers from what we’ve already done to it is staggering.

The thing is, there’s no haranguing. Alan’s remarkably dispassionate as he talks about what we’ve done and what would happen if we stopped right now, because he’s not trying to chide anyone; we’re already gone, so “convincing” anyone isn’t a part of the book.

Still. His discussions of plastics are terrifying; they were designed to be impenetrable by bacteria, resistant to corrosion or breakdown, and that’s why we love using them. But at the same time, all that plastic is being launched into the oceans, and the same qualities that make it awesome for keeping your milk stored make it something that isn’t going away. Eventually, bacteria will learn to eat plastic, but that’s gonna be a couple of million years off.

The damage we’re doing is our legacy.

Oh, there are cool “failure” scenarios, too. He discusses nuclear reactors, and what will happen if nobody’s at the helm, discussing Chernobyl in detail. He discusses Africa, and what species will come out on top once we’re yoinked off the top of the food chain. And we find out, fascinatingly, that the cockroach will not survive well; a tropical insect, it subsists off of our year-round heating habits, and most of the North American ones will die out in the first two or three winters.

It is, in all ways, a well-thought-out book. It changes the way you’d think. I’d recommend everyone take a look at it.

Book #51: How Doctors Think, by Jerome Groopman
I was really looking forward to this one, but it wasn’t quite what I thought it was going to be. I spent the first ten years of my life working with doctors, first as an answering service operator and then as a medical transcriptionist, so I know that doctors are often making shit up as they go; I wanted more detail on “how.”

This book, while interesting, is like several episodes of “House” but without the witty dialogue.

What I wanted was a real breakdown of the ways doctors went about diagnosing people, followed by a chart of the most common errors and the signs to look for. But this is a much less scientific tome, discussing doctoring as an art, showing via stories how doctors can lead (or mislead) both patients and themselves.

I suspect that if I thought of doctors as Gods, this could be revelatory. As it stands, this was really neat, but a little thin on detail for me; I would have appreciated more concrete advice on how to get your doctor to diagnose you properly. That information is here, but it’s stored in a bunch of anecdotes.

It’s good stuff. Just not as new as I would have liked.


(15 shouts of denial | Tell me I'm full of it)

[User Picture]
Date:July 31st, 2007 01:48 pm (UTC)
as a medical transcriptionist, so I know that doctors are often making shit up as they go

Amen, brother! I'm still working as a medical transcriptionist - 15 years next March - and I still have at least one report a week where I stop, glare at the monitor, and say to the doctor "You have no idea. You're just pulling things out of your ass now." But at least sometimes I get to the end of the report and discover that - incredibly - they were right.
[User Picture]
Date:July 31st, 2007 01:49 pm (UTC)
The first book sounds cool, and I'll probably pick it up eventually, just because post-apocalyptic writing (whether it focuses on why we're not there anymore or not) just seems to get to me in a way not many other books can. That site that was floating around for a while with pictures of Chernobyl was a golden find for me at the time. Things like that bring me amazement.

The second book doesn't sound like something for me, but I did learn something: You were a medical transcriptionist? For how long? I know your mom did/does it, but didn't know you went that route. I do it now, and I'm the only person I know that actually enjoys it. It's relatively brainless for me, I'm fast, and I can put most of my mind on other tasks while I'm doing it.
[User Picture]
Date:July 31st, 2007 01:50 pm (UTC)
Yesterday morning I heard a neat interview with Weisman on NPR. I can't wait to get my hands on the book - it sounds fascinating.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:July 31st, 2007 01:54 pm (UTC)
I couldn't get into The World Without Us. I don't know what it was, but the idea seemed so compelling, yet the execution was so disappointing for me.
[User Picture]
Date:July 31st, 2007 02:07 pm (UTC)
I should have added that the writing's a little less descriptive and more scientific. That was a disappointment, I admit; I wanted to feel that empty world, which I did not.
[User Picture]
Date:July 31st, 2007 02:26 pm (UTC)
Yeah, the clinical nature of it was what turned me off the most.
[User Picture]
Date:July 31st, 2007 02:15 pm (UTC)
You might want to take a look at this: Ghost Town, the story and pictures of a woman who went riding around the Chernobyl dead zone. You might have seen it before as it's been doing the rounds on the net for some time now, but it seems too perfect not to mention here.
[User Picture]
Date:July 31st, 2007 02:23 pm (UTC)
I remember seeing it the first time it made it's way - pretty neat.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:July 31st, 2007 07:00 pm (UTC)

Obi-Wan Error?

I'm missing something here.
[User Picture]
Date:July 31st, 2007 08:51 pm (UTC)
I would have appreciated more concrete advice on how to get your doctor to diagnose you properly.

I'm learning very quickly that the best thing a patient can do is to pay ridiculously close attention to their own symptoms. Diagnosing a person is kind of like doing tech support over the phone - you can't see what's happening when they try to open a word document, all you have is their description.

Most of the time, we don't see patients when their symptoms are at their worst - so we ask them to tell us about it. And we're unrelenting in the amount of detail we want. Oh, your stomach hurts? When does it hurt? Where does it hurt the worst? Does eating make it better? Do you ever feel like you're going to throw up? Have you done anything that makes it feel worse? Is it cramping, aching, or burning?

And believe or not, all those answers really matter. So yes, making sure your doctor doesn't get it in his head that you've got an ulcer when you really have pancreatitis is important, but all we have to go on at the beginning is what you tell us - then comes the ordering of the tests, and the scoping of the bowels and the turning of the head and coughing. So any time that you can be sure in your answers (Yes, it was last tuesday, I remember!) that's a Very Good Thing. Because it'll be the right information and it'll convince us that you know what you're talking about, which helps the whole process go much smoother.

Date:July 31st, 2007 09:53 pm (UTC)


"I spent the first ten years of my life working with doctors, first as an answering service operator and then as a medical transcriptionist"

The first ten years of your life? Like, out of the womb and into the workforce?
[User Picture]
Date:August 1st, 2007 11:00 am (UTC)

Re: Huh?

I was certainly impressed...
[User Picture]
Date:July 31st, 2007 11:11 pm (UTC)
I'm reading "The World Without Us" right now. I'm not reading it in the traditional way, though. I'm reading it to Dr. Sweetheart in the car on longer car rides. Me, I'm just impressed with the performance of bathroom tiles. =)
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