Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Books: Stiff - The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

ca-dav-er (n). A dead body, especially one intended for dissection.
(from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)

I read Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers for Book Club in June. It was a book that was floating around in that area of my brain that stores books that I would like to read but will probably never actually get to (see also: The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker), so I was happy it was the selection of the month. My interest in this book stems from my interest in the human body, something that I’ve had from a long way back. When I was a very young kid, I would flip through those painted cels in my parents’ old dictionaries. With every turn of the page, I’d get a new layer of human anatomy: the skin, the muscles and tendons, the internal organs, the bloodstream, the skeleton, and the nervous system. I’d spend hours looking at them, tracing single nerves and arteries with my tiny finger, wondering how it all worked. When I was older, I’d take huge non-fiction books out of the library ordered on three categories: dinosaurs, human anatomy, and movies (two of these three obsessions are with me to this day). The librarians would look at my dad strangely when I brought them up to the counter, but he’d just nod his head and smile at them, and I’d bring them home, crack them open and devour them. Like delicious coconuts of learning.

I should also mention that I’ve had hands-on experience with cadavers. Well, not exactly cadavers. Cadavers, as has already been mentioned, are dead bodies, specifically whole dead bodies. In my cadaver lab, we dealt with prosections, which are prepared sections of a cadaver. I’ve seen a few torsos, a severed head, and the equivalent about six whole brains, in various pieces. So I was not expecting to be grossed out by the book, despite the warning that we “shouldn’t eat while reading it.” I read this book in about seven hours; six and a half hours pretty much straight on the way to Moose Jaw, and then the last little bit while we were hanging out in the cabin. And let me tell you, folks, it was great.

The subject matter is certainly interesting; we get a ton of information about how the dead human body has helped with great scientific and technical advances. The history of the cadaver for medical purposes, using head prosections to teach facelift techniques, and stories about mortuary schools and forensic labs were the kinds of stories I was expecting, but I got so much more. We get extremely enlightening chapters on crucifiction experiements, automobile safety, the funeral industry, head transplants, and cannibalism. (There are also footnotes chock full of interesting trivia, including the most food that a human stomach has contained.) I found something enlightening and thought-provoking in every chapter, but for me the biggest strength was the chapter on the ways to deal with human remains. More and more I think of burial as a waste of space, time, and money, and Roach puts forth other options besides cremation and pine boxes. We humans sometimes have a really difficult time when thinking about what happens to us after we’re dead, and the ideas she presents here, while they may be uncomfortable for some people to think about, deserve to be given to a wider audience.

Roach’s style is a great fit for this material. She’s reverent when the subject matter demands it, and light and amusing when you need a bit of a break from the graphic details. There were points where I thought she got a little rambly, and I thought that a few chapters stretched the definition of cadaver, but those are minor quibbles for a book that’s this enjoyable.

I gave you my personal narrative at the beginning not only to show my childish precociousness, but to indicate that I’m not the kind of person to be disgusted by subject matter like body decomposition, cannibalism, or alternate funeral arrangements. I know a lot of people would be, and that shouldn’t stop them from reading this book, because I think they’d get something out of this book too, something that I couldn’t get out of it. Stiff is humorous, intelligent, thought-provoking, and extremely readable, and I haven’t read a book that I could recommend this highly in over a year.

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