[Rob has been invited to Vassar to talk to the entering class of students about his book The Wild Life of Our Bodies, but also about our wild lives, theirs, his, those of the future. This is his letter to those students.]
Dear students of Vassar,
Let me begin with a warning. Don’t trust anything a writer says about his or her own family. That said, my grandmother, Barbara, grew up in Oxford, Mississippi. She lived in a room that was meant for an observatory and spent at least some days on William Faulkner’s porch listening to him tell stories to younger children. My grandmother Barbara (who I only ever called Barbara) is relevant to what I am going to tell you because she provided my first and most meaningful impression of Vassar.
Barbara went to Vassar as a young woman from Mississippi. I don’t know many stories about her time at Vassar (though I do own her copies of many of the books she read there and books, as it turns out, are an important part of the story). What I do know is that by the time I was born Barbara volunteered (worked really), every year, at the Vassar Book Sale in Maryland. By day she was a librarian and worked with books; by night she worked at the book sale and worked with even more books. She lived on a diet of words (along with green beans, pork, pecan pies, and red wine). The Vassar Book Sale was run by Barbara and her friends, most but not all of them alumni of Vassar. Each year they gathered books from around Washington D.C. (where Barbara and her husband, my grandfather, raised my dad and his siblings) and anywhere else donated books could be found. Barbara drove a big white car in which I sometimes rode and when I did I inevitably rode between great piles of books, books going from one place to another, books that had been well read and were waiting to be read again.
This would be a small story about a book sale, except to my mind as a child it was not a small book sale. Each year it was coordinated in the basement of some or another house and in such basements one found, I found, a sort of Roman ruin of books complete with corridors and passageways (each built of nothing but books). It was a world of books in which Barbara found real joy, just as she had found joy in books her entire life. I was always allowed to choose a few from among those books to read, but the vast majority were sold to raise money for scholarships to Vassar. While it is easy to imagine my childhood perception of the piles of books as immense to be somewhat flawed, biased by my small size (once I stumbled upon a great pyramid of books in one of those basements into which I crawled to read, or so I recall), the scale of the sale, as I confirmed before writing this, was actually immense. The book sale earned several million dollars for Vassar students over its lifetime; in some years several hundred thousand books were sold. The piles of books, the corridors, the boxes and boxes, they really were part of an empire of paper, bindings and words.
For me then, Vassar and books were synonymous. Vassar was a word uttered, always, in the same sentence with literature and history, and the vast piles of knowledge on which decisions might be made. And women like Barbara helped to keep that knowledge in order, both so that it might be disseminated to others and so that more students who might not otherwise be able could go to Vassar.
My grandfather, Barbara’s husband, Read (really his name and his father’s name and my father’s name), was, like Barbara, a larger than life figure. He, like Barbara, did great things and he sought to do them in light of knowledge. Barbara interrogated books for truths and insights, my granddad, Read, interrogated the world. He asked questions of anyone and everyone. To walk with him was to learn patience, the patience of pausing at each person one passed to figure out what they knew, what light their perspective might shed on the world. Each person, to him, had some specialty, some bit of knowledge no one else had; the more different the person from him, the more cherished the light. Between Barbara and Read I learned to look to history, I learned to listen to people and I learned to tell stories. These were central elements of the world they constructed, elements passed on to their children and, through them (as well as directly) to me.
I mention all of this because, as you know, this fall I’ll be coming to Vassar, the place of books and knowledge (at least to me, and I hope to you), to talk about my book, The Wild Life of Our Bodies, which you are reading and another of my books, The Man Who Touched His Own Heart. In no small part it is fair to say that I wrote these books because I grew up reading beneath a pyramid of books at the Vassar book sale.
The books I’ll talk about are superficially about biology, the biology of our bodies and daily lives, and the biology of the heart, respectively. Yet, they are also stories about something else, namely how little we still know about the world around us and the extent to which individual humans can both change what we know (shine some new light) and act on that new knowledge in ways that improve the world. When I was an undergraduate student at Kalamazoo College, a college in many ways like Vassar, I already loved knowledge and reading. What I didn’t yet understand, and what I’ll share with you, is the extent to which most of what is knowable is not yet known. Literature, history, art and science are the great lights of civilization, but the darkness they illuminate is still vast.
The other reality I didn’t fully grasp as a young student was the tension between truth (and with truth, civilization) and darkness. The tension between these things has always existed. That we continue to forge more just and informed societies depends on people like you, it depends upon your desire to build upon what has been learned (and to know what has been learned) and then to act in ways that improve the world. Here I am reminded of the Islamic scholars and German monks who in separate worlds worked to save and copy the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans after the fall of Rome (and in doing so saved much of ancient knowledge for all of us). I am reminded of the artists and scholars who, in the beginning of the renaissance, through off the strictures of the dark ages, rediscovered the knowledge of the Romans and Greeks and built on it. More immediately, I am reminded of a moment late in my grandparents lives when, still living in the house in which they had raised their children, they looked out during a storm and saw that a shed in the backyard was collapsing beneath the rain. I came just in time to see them on either side of the shed, holding it up over what from a distance looked like books, books gleaming in the flashes of lightning (but turned out to be old pieces of wood. When one reads too much everything looks like a book).
Of course, I understand that as you arrive at college the first thing you think about may not be ancient Rome, the history of knowledge, or the great things you might do in the world. You are about to be flung into a university filled with other people your same age and relatively few older adults. Chekhov wrote something to the effect of “show me a room with a man, a woman and a teacup and the story is always about the man and the woman.” We might generalize this to show me a university with several thousand 18 to 20 year olds and books and, well, it won’t always be about the books. But sometimes it will be and it needs to be because as we move forward over the next few years you will be the people standing on either side of the shed of civilization and stabilizing its walls. You are as capable of doing this, of doing great things, as any people on the planet. That is literally true and the more you learn while you are at Vassar, the better able you be able to take action on that ability, to do great things.
My writing about rooms filled with books may seem dated, “oh so 1900s” as my daughter says. What, in a time in which virtual reality and reality blur, can one really learn from Chekhov, Leonardo da Vinci or Galileo, much less Homer? Here let me close with a concrete example that I will return to when I visit, an example from Leonardo, an example that I hope will resonate whether you study technology, classics, economics, or medicine.
Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated with human bodies well beyond any need he might have had to study them as an artist. In this he shared something with Michelangelo. Michelangelo lost himself in the study of muscles and bones. In early life this led Michelangelo to paint and sculpt bodies that were weak and flawed, as modest as the bodies of the poor, diseased and dead he dissected. It was only later that he turned to the question of portraying the idealized body (which led him to err in the opposite direction, see for example one of his very beefy Madonnas. Leonardo’s obsession was more intense than that of Michelangelo. It went beyond the muscles and bones and extended to rest of the body, the organs, arteries and veins.
Here, I’ll draw on what I’ve what I’ve already written in The Man Who Touched His Own Heart (and then add a few details I’ve learned since writing the book). Much as now, anatomists during Leonardo’s time taught that everything of importance was already known about the body, one had only to read the ancient texts (ancient texts of the Romans, saved by Islamic scholars and chance, texts that in turn built on earlier work of the Greeks and even Egyptians). But as if having stumbled into a secret chamber Leonardo, when dissecting bodies, quickly realized that most of what he was seeing seemed to have never been seen before. He couldn’t get enough. This was the context when Leonardo went to visit the Santa Maria Nuova hospital, a hospital you can still go to if you get sick in Florence. While there, Leonardo was talking to a very old man who died suddenly, quietly, and without obvious pain, during the conversation. In response, Leonardo did the only thing he could imagine doing; he dragged the dead man down the stairs of the hospital into the basement and in a stone chamber (see image) began to dissect him. He wanted to understand the cause of such a sweet death (at a time in which most deaths were horrible).
Leonardo spent weeks in the basement with the old man’s body and, in doing so, saw many things no one had seen before. For reasons I’ll go into when I visit, much of what he saw was both totally new and lost to science for centuries. This includes the very first observation of the cause of the most very common form of heart disease, that due to clogging of the arteries, atherosclerosis. Leonardo saw that the old man’s arteries were narrowed and twisted and reasoned (long before circulation was understood) that his death was due to a failure of nutrition to be able to travel to the body through the blood. He was right. Leonardo made this insight (and many others) through analogy. To him the arteries looked like rivers, such as the Arno and the Arno too, as it twisted became silted over, and clogged. Amazingly, for the clogging of the Arno River Leonardo proposed a solution, namely to bypass it by cutting a short cut through the clogged section that ran through Florence. It would take modern medicine until the 1940s and 1950s to rediscover atherosclerosis as a cause of heart disease; it would take them even longer to realize that one solution to atherosclerosis, particularly in the coronary arteries (the arteries that supply oxygen to the heart itself) was to bypass the clog, just as Leonardo had proposed for the Arno.
A painting, by Leonardo, of some of the tortuous arteries of the Arno.
I bring up the story of Leonardo and atherosclerosis because, as it turns out, Leonardo made many discoveries that have only recently been rediscovered, as did others working in other fields (Leonardo was an artist by guild and training, not an anatomist). Such discoveries are more than just interesting history, when combined with new observations and insights they can help to reveal things we don’t yet know. I believe that we have yet to rediscover some of what Leonardo knew about the body. This is conceivable in as much as we remain more ignorant about the body than you can possibly imagine. Just in the past five years our understanding of the appendix has fundamentally changed, that of the arteries has shifted, as even has our sense of what the armpits do (they play, we think, a role in preventing infection. I’ll tell you more about it when I visit). The armpits! Your armpits and their unusual glands! How could this be? It is simply because our understanding, our modern science, in the history of the world is very recent and the world is more biologically and physically complex than we are yet wise.
So what do you do in this light? You/we must continue to study the world around us and, I’ll close when at Vassar by arguing, we must study in light of cooperation, the collaboration, of millions of others around the world, a kind of collaboration that seems, perhaps (I hope) obvious to your generation and yet was inconceivable very recently. The sort of collaboration I am talking about is that which can be achieved through global networks, global partnerships and citizen science (in which many people work together to make a discovery that would be impossible independently) but which undoubtedly will be sped in your generation by other ways of working together around the world. Here I will invoke my grandfather who believed (I think rightly) that each person shined some unique light and note that until very recently the only way to use that light was to find each person and listen, carefully, to what they had seen and knew (I still advocate this, but it is also why it takes me so long to walk down the street, as my family will attest). But with our new connectedness, we now have the potential to link together our diverse lights in many ways to see what we can not see alone, to link together our diverse insights to make discoveries and change in the world that was unimaginable very recently, discoveries in the context of great literature, ethics, and history, discoveries and great and positive change at a time when such change is both possible and necessary and when you are the people poised to make it, you with the world.
Now is the moment to use our global connections, in the context of the rich lessons of the past, the lessons of books and, for you, the lessons from Vassar. It is the moment to understand the world as we have never understood it before, and improve it. You are uniquely poised to do so and, if I have learned anything in my career it is that you cannot ever assume that if you fail to do something that someone else will do it instead. There is not, anywhere else in the world, another group of people more prepared to do great things. Greatness falls to you.
I look very much forward to meeting you all, and to hearing what you have seen that I have not yet seen. I look forward to finally visiting (for the first time) the place to me that is synonymous with books.