Book Review: If Our Bodies Could Talk
A Guide to Operating and Maintaining a Human Body
by James Hamblin
Any reader who might have stumbled across the YouTube videos made by senior Atlantic editor and media-savvy MD James Hamblin will flinch a bit at the thought of those videos being transformed into a book. The problem isn’t that Hamblin is freakishly young-looking (he was born in 1983 but looks like he was born in 2013), since there’s only the one dust jacket photo of him included with the book. No, the problem is made obvious by watching even a handful of those Atlantic videos: he’s a numbingly bad on-camera presence, a halting, mumbling, disorganized thinker when in front of an unseen audience. The idea of reading the written equivalent of those instructional videos might turn even the most open-minded reader in the general direction of the nearest zombie-vampire rom-com.
And the book in question, If Our Bodies Could Talk, doesn’t at first allay any of those worries. The opening notes warble with qualifications of all kinds. Right there at the beginning of a book whose sole purpose is to provide page after page of answers to basic and not-so-basic biological questions, the very idea of answers is nudged and dribbled all over the page:
Many of the answers are, rather, stories about why we don’t have concrete answers. Sometimes the most interesting thing is knowing why we don’t know, and the point is in the considering, and being comfortable in not knowing. Health is a balance between acceptance and control.
And perhaps inescapably, given this penchant for 21st century quibbling, the very heart of a book like If Our Bodies Could Talk, the baseline of what is “normal” against which all discussions of human biology take place is likewise quibbled to a standstill:
In that tendency to seek order and control, an abiding theme among bodily questions and concerns is the concept of normal. The word tends to mean different things to scientists, who use it in every other sentence, with statistical deviation in mind, and nonscientists, who are more likely to hear it in judgment.
But somehow, the book recovers from these kinds of open invitations to avoid reading it. In large part this is the result of the extremely bright, inviting physical presentation of the thing, designed by Iris Weinstein and copiously illustrated by Hallie Bateman. And, to be grudgingly fair, Hamblin himself chips in; he provides clear, friendly discussions of everything from sunburns to hair to eyeballs. He examines the range and nature of human senses, human eating and drinking and sleeping habits (and needs), and the human maladies that bring every party to a close. And even when Hamblin delves into biochemical detail, as he does refreshingly often, he keeps things readable:
Like many of the compounds known as vitamins, ascorbic acid is a coenzyme that assists enzymes in speeding up chemical reactions inside our bodies. Like the other vitamins, its presence is vital, lest we suffer horrific disease. The role of ascorbic acid is to help with the reaction that converts a precursor molecule into collagen; with just a microscopic dose every week, there will be plenty of the coenzyme to facilitate the reaction that produces collagen. Take additional vitamin C and you will not make extra collagen. Your kidneys will excrete the excess, usually without complication.
If Our Bodies Could Talk is a heavy, handy thing, and it’s amazing to think about the enormous changes it would make in millions of lives if it were the book on the bedside shelf, ready within arm’s reach to answer – comprehensively and not condescendingly – the host of common questions people have always had about their bodies. If James Hamblin can publish a book that leverages his platform and popularity into raising the quality of that general medical awareness, it would be worth any amount of garbled delivery and lifeless halibut eyes. This is a nifty book for your curiosity about sweating, farting, burping, stretching, retching, walking, running, sitting, and ailing – and it will teach you plenty of other things in the process.