16 May 2008

Best Book I've Read This Year

My new intellectual crush has got to be Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist. The book provides a sweeping multi-disciplinary look at modern artists (visual, literature, even food) and how their art anticipated truths that would later be discovered by science or, in some cases, expressed a more whole truth than science is currently capable of. It sounds ambitious and difficult, but it's actually quite an easy read.

The reason I enjoyed the book so much is that this is the sort of cross-referenced education I wish we could all receive in school. I hated that, though taken in the same year, my American Lit course did not keep pace with my American History class, so that I lacked the full context in which these novels were created. In fact, history class, itself was a mess of silos. In World History, we marched forward in time through the traditional "western" history track of Greece to Rome to Renaissance to Reformation to America. Our textbook ignored the rich history of the Byzantine Empire in favor of the bleak Dark Ages and frequently had to circle back to suddenly explain things like "Who are these Ottomans?" and "What's been going on over in Japan all this time?"

But beyond the sheer pleasure of reading a book crafted by a mind knowledgeable enough to divine these previously overlooked connections, I also enjoyed reading it as a call to arms to bring science and humanities together. Lehrer doesn't state this goal until the final chapter, though he talked it up while promoting the book, including the On Point appearance that inspired me to go out and buy it. And it isn't a hard conclusion to come to on your own. As you read through the book and see how scientific advancements of the day inspired Middlemarch or how modern visual art inspired writers to seek the same abstractions in literature, it's not a far leap to wonder how much more quickly science could have arrived at the same conclusions, if only it were open to the influence of art.

I will admit that the Virgina Woolf chapter on the Emergent Self, the Ghost in our Machine, made me a bit uncomfortable. It's the first example where science has not yet proved the "truth" in the art, unless you count the possibility that science has proved that it can not prove that the Self (or soul or whatever you choose to call it, yourself) has a physical neurological correlate because it hasn't got one. But this is just an example of the whole point of the book. My discomfort arises because I was brought up to believe that if science can't prove it, it must not be real and this is exactly the attitude that closes the door on true cross-disciplinary collaboration. And maybe, as Lehrer points out in the Coda chapter, there are some things that science will never be able to help us know.