Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Five books about pain

David Biro has a medical degree from Columbia University and a doctorate in English Literature from Oxford University. He is an Associate Professor of Dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. He also teaches in the medical humanities division there, directing a course on medicine and literature.

Biro’s first book, One Hundred Days: My Unexpected Journey from Doctor to Patient, chronicles his experience undergoing a bone marrow transplant. His second book is The Language of Pain: Finding Words, Compassion, and Relief. His articles have been published in various medical journals as well as the New York Times Magazine, Slate, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

He shared a list of five books on pain with Daisy Banks at FiveBooks, including:
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Clark Styron, Jr.

Your first book, Darkness Visible by William Styron, explores the pain of suicidal depression.

In thinking about what five books on pain to select, I wanted to choose works that illuminated not so much the biology of pain but what it’s like to experience and live it. So I thought the best way to start would be a personal narrative. I think Styron’s memoir is the perfect one because he’s a gifted writer who has made a career of trying to express difficult-to-express feelings. His book offers a visceral sense of what it’s like to be in excruciating pain for those who have never experienced that. It also explores the continuity between psychological and physical pain. I believe there is a far bigger overlap here than most people, especially in the medical community, recognise.

There are two other critical insights in Styron’s memoir. One is that when pain is at its most intense, it really is indescribable. Styron does his best to capture those moments and for a while is very descriptive. But when the full force of pain hits, everything suddenly becomes a blur. He becomes, he writes, wall-eyed, which is a brilliant expression of how he felt.

He was suffering from the same acute depression as other writers like Virginia Woolf and Primo Levi?

Yes, and again here are these professional wordsmiths who are left speechless in the face of pain. The other thing I really like about the book is the way Styron describes the isolating effects of pain, especially when it goes on for long stretches. Pain cuts you off from the world. Styron rightly talks of the ferocious inwardness of pain and the aching solitude of pain. These feelings occur in all types of chronic pain, whether psychological or physical. Pain produces a sense of loneliness which, in turn, exacerbates the pain. It becomes a vicious cycle leading to more and more pain.
Read about another book on Biro's list.

--Marshal Zeringue