in the hundreds

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When 2017 began I set out to read 26 books. I thought this was ambitious because I had essentially abandoned reading for most of the previous ten years. It must have been sometime in the spring, after topping well over 100 books, that I realized I would certainly read a record number of books (record for me, that is). I didn’t consciously set out until later in the year to finish 365 books but crossed that threshold in early-mid December, meaning that I did in the end get to read somewhere between 393 and 400 books (Goodreads, which I used to keep track of the reading, was a bit fidgety and unreliable in recording dates).

I’m a bit stunned by having read so much – feeling some of the material branded on my brain permanently, fresh in my mind since early in the year, while some things were almost forgettable. But it was, as I told a former colleague, enriching. It might not be the greatest accomplishment of the year, and it is certainly the quietest, but it gave each day a new meaning, a fresh story, a new palette on which language was painted in wholly different ways, and of course made, as Firewall likes to say, every day into a school day. In a good way, of course.

I was asked to select my favorite from among these books, but this is impossible. I read from such a wide breadth of topics and disciplines, from literary and scientific materials from around the world, that it could not even be done to say that one single book stood above the others. But among those that I loved, those that I didn’t want to end, those that I learned the most from, those that confounded or stayed with me the longest – making me turn my thoughts to them again and again – here is the rough list in no particular order:

*Advice for a Young Investigator – Santiago Ramón y Cajal

*The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
Was not sure I would include this because I had mixed feelings, although by the end I was convinced/moved.

*The Master Butchers Singing Club – Louise Erdrich
Another one I was not sure I would include. I read most of Erdrich’s books this year and most were middle of the road, but this one stood out for some reason.

*The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon
I read a bunch of Chabon and just like his style (even though it can be quite different in all his writing) and could recommend anything he has written, but this was somehow… the one I liked most.

*Time and Materials – Robert Hass
Poetry, which is not for everyone. This was superlative

*Edwin Morgan: Collected Poems – Edwin Morgan
More poetry; discovered Glaswegian Edwin Morgan this year and loved

*Reality is Not What It Seems: The Elusive Structure of the Universe and the Journey to Quantum Gravity – Carlo Rovelli

*Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli

*Go, Went, Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck
Possibly overlooked by many; reminds me slightly of the film The Visitor. Deals with refugee crisis/asylum seekers in Germany with some interesting looks back at how things changed when Germany reunified

*Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
An old one I should have read ages ago but only got around to now. Enjoyed the hilarious absurdity

*The Noonday Demon – Andrew Solomon
A long book on depression – not sure why I started reading it but it was engrossing

*Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins – Peter S Ungar
Part of my obsession with teeth this year

*Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner
A surprising and moving book

*If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino
A strange one – but the complexity of Calvino’s style makes me want to read everything he writes (he is listed again later/below)

*Broken April – Ismail Kadare
Albanian book that deals with the Kanun/blood feuds, etc.

*Secondhand Time: An Oral history of the Fall of the Soviet Union – Svetlana Alexievich

*The Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano
Surprising – not sure why this book (fiction, Italian) stuck with me – perhaps the descriptions of how people fool others and themselves living a version of themselves that cannot possibly be true

*Pretty much anything by Naomi Klein, of which I read all – very timely and important

*A General Theory of Oblivion – Jose Eduardo Agualusa
An unusual one from Angola

*Tram 83 – Fiston Mwanza Mujila
An interesting one from Congo

*The Sellout – Paul Beatty
Probably one of my very favorite ones this year

*A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
Engrossing – just when you think things cannot get worse or more heartbreaking, they do. As my colleague put it “emotional porn” – a form of blackmail

*The Revolution of Everyday Life – Raoul Vaneigem
Abstract-ish philosophy but somehow resonated when I read it

*All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
Fiction

*Before the Fall – Noah Hawley
Fiction from the guy who brought us the TV version of Fargo

*The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee
A book on cancer – not uplifting but fascinating

*Karaoke Culture – Dubravka Ugresic
Because I pretty much love all of Ugresic’s observational essay work

*Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America – Mary Otto
More teeth!

*Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
More Calvino, whom I have quoted to death this year

*Pretty much any poetry book of works by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer

*The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa
This is one that kept me thinking all year long and to which I will return repeatedly

*A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America – Bruce Cannon Gibney
Brewing the Baby Boomer hate…

*The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen
Another of my favorite works of fiction this year

2018…

My goal, again, is to read 26 books. The trick this time, though, is that none of them can be in English. I can read books in English, but they won’t count toward the goal.

slowpoke

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I, ever the nagging tooth infection, am abnormally obsessed with teeth.

Not in quite the same way as my old friend, Mike, who became obsessed with his own tooth care so as not to leave behind a toothless skeleton.

Also not in the way that most Americans obsess about the cosmetics and perfection of their teeth and smile. But in an all-encompassing way. Months ago, I stumbled on a book, Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America by Mary Otto, which actually made me cry, and also, more importantly of course, chronicled the American love affair with cosmetic dentistry (and its accompanying expense) and the relation between tooth care, oral health and poverty. But this was not enough. But I was not sure how to drill down (ha – I know – not funny) further.

Last week I read some books on teeth, Teeth: A Very Short Introduction and Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins – both by Peter S Ungar – that delve into evolutionary theory and how teeth have developed – in humans and other species. As I read, particularly as one book went into detail about the types of teeth in other species, I wondered to myself, “What am I doing? Why am I reading this?” Yes, I was fascinated – riveted even – but it still seemed so far off course from what I would normally read or be interested in. I thought for a moment that it might just be deep-rooted (ha – again, not funny) respect for the level of obsessive detail scholars (in any field) bring to their work. I would not have the patience or depth of interest in any field to carry out the kind of painstaking attention and focus that these researchers in archaeology, paleontology, biology, anthropology (and various other sciences) dedicated to their ongoing work.

But it was certainly more than that because I don’t read multiple books on other topics just because I admire the compulsive need of the scientist to chronicle his/her work and hit upon discoveries no one has made before (or broaden, deepen, confirm, refute or upend the existing scholarship). No, it’s just a weird fascination with teeth. In Ungar’s Teeth, as I happily read along in delight, this was confirmed in a long passage about the teeth of snails, slugs and other molluscs, confirming my answers to this internal self-questioning.

Then there are the mollusks. Tens of thousands of species, from slug to snail to squid, have ‘teeth’. These form in rows on ribbons of chitin in the mouth called radulae. Many mollusks use these structures as a comb to rake up microorganisms, or as a rasp to scrape food from rock or shell. Radulae typically move back and forth like a handsaw. While radular ‘teeth’ tend to be small and recurved, shapes and sizes can vary with species and function in feeding. They can even vary within individuals. In fact, a change in diet can trigger a change in shape for new ‘teeth’ formed to replace old, worn ones. Also, some radulae are extremely specialized. Whelks, for example, commonly have three long, sabre-like ‘teeth’ in each row. These are used to drill through barnacle and clam shells with the help of secretions that break down calcium carbonate. And cone snails have radulae modified into hypodermic needles to inject venom. These have barb at their ends, and can be extended from the mouth like harpoons to attack and paralyse prey.

I had to laugh at my own oddity.

Photo (c) 2017 S Donaghy

Your pain is nothing to me: Teeth

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“The teeth and back reject…” -Marge Piercy

For much of my life I’ve struggled with the teeth – and these last days have been hobbling along like an 85-year-old lady with a back ‘disturbance’, so the quotation feels apt. This is what happens when you push too hard.

Nerding out, as I do, as soon as I read a review of the book Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality and the Struggle for Oral Health in America,  I knew I had to read it immediately. God knows why. Weird things fascinate me, and maybe it’s not true to say that I “nerd out” sometimes. I am, let’s face it, a full-time nerd.

“The dividing line between the classes might be starkest between those who spend thousands of dollars on a gleaming smile and those who suffer and even die from preventable tooth decay.”

I get fired up about reading the most random of things – this time about teeth and the history of dental care and dentistry: everything from the obsession with the cosmetic aspects of teeth (which is treated at length in the book, but about which I choose not to focus here) to the pain, suffering and real, life-threatening medical emergencies that can occur when teeth are not cared for (and a system that isn’t designed to care for the majority of people and their teeth).

In the way that they disfigure the face, bad teeth depersonalize the sufferer. They confer the stigma of economic and even moral failure. People are held personally accountable for the state of their teeth in ways that they are not held accountable for many other health conditions.

The teeth are made from stern stuff. They can withstand floods, fires, even centuries in the grave. But the teeth are no match for the slow-motion catastrophe that is a life of poverty: its burdens, distractions, diseases, privations, low expectations, transience, the addictive antidotes that offer temporary relief at usurious rates.

What does it say that this book actually made me cry? That a child’s dental health (or any person’s really) is able to reach such a state of total breakdown that it is his final frontier. Once teeth are beyond all help, the body itself slips toward mortality – that’s too much for my emotional parts to process. The story of 12-year-old Deamonte Driver, a Maryland boy who died of a systemic infection caused by one decaying tooth was heartbreaking and not at all unique.

Not to add that America, with its fragmented health or dental care systems, which are – as the book explores – completely separate, the idea of preventive care, while trotted out in marketing and ad efforts for toothpaste, isn’t taken very seriously. (Parents need to teach their children: “Your teeth are pearls. You should keep them,” she said.) And analyses of the total cost involved (not even looking at the tragic loss of life) balance an 80 USD tooth extraction against the estimated 250,000 USD that Driver’s emergent medical condition, surgical procedures and hospitalizations ended up costing. Driver might have been saved had the labyrinthine system, leading his mother around in circles but going nowhere but an unnecessary and excruciating death, had more transparency or advocates in it.

The rate of dental suffering is a grim kind of economic indicator.

It’s complex. How did the human body and its (medical) treatment become completely disconnected from the treatment of the mouth and teeth, moving further away from any notion of “holistic treatment”? The book highlights, for example, the squeamishness that even seasoned combat and trauma physicians feel when it comes to extracting a rotten tooth from a patient who comes to the ER in the absence of some other form of treatment or pain relief. The theory behind this is that perhaps working with teeth is just too personal.

None of it is new. The teeth tell a story, both an evolutionary and individual history. And can erupt in the pressure of the kind of pain and suffering that can scarcely be put into words.

The teeth flame out when they die. That is a very old kind of pain. The human fossil record bears mute testimony.

“At some moments, he said the pain was so deep it became like a partner. “Really the pain almost feels good after a while*. The medulla takes over and you waltz through it.At other times, he said he was its slave. “I’m in a lot of pain but I can’t do anything about it,” he said. “I don’t beg, borrow, or steal. Shoot me in the head, please. It would be a lot easier if you put me out of my misery.”

*As I always say, there is a poem or song for everything. PK Page writes in her poem “Suffering”:

“But
suffering is sweeter yet.
That dark embrace – that birthmark,
birthright, even.
Yours forever
ready to be conjured up –
tongue in the sore tooth, fingertip
pressed to the bandaged cut
and mind returning to it over and over.

Best friend, bestower of feeling
Status-giver.
Something to suck at like a stone.
One’s own. One’s owner.
…One’s almost lover.”

“”SHOW ME YOUR TEETH,” THE GREAT NATURALIST GEORGES CUVIER, is credited with saying, “and I will tell you who you are.” That a tooth could tell a life story, he was certain.