How amazing is my thought!
April 8, 2013 12:30 PM   Subscribe

Lewis Thomas (1913-1993) was a physician and essayist, writing gracefully on topics as varied as language, nuclear war, and our excellent health and deplorable health-care system (PDF). He believed that the existence of Bach vindicates humanity, that "ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment", and that the Earth is perhaps best thought of as a cell. A three-time winner of the National Book Award, Thomas authored Lives of a Cell, which was voted the 11th-best nonfiction work of the 20th century by the Modern Library.
posted by seemoreglass (15 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Ah, this brings back memories. When we were kids, my parents loved to read to us essays from his books. Also, from Loren Eiseley, which is why for years now I still get confused about which one of them actually wrote The Star Thrower (it was Eiseley). Still, good stuff. Thanks for the remembrance, seemoreglass.
posted by seasparrow at 12:40 PM on April 8, 2013

Seasparrow, it's awesome that your parents read you intelligent essays when you were a kid. That there's good parentin'.

About what age were you when they started? (or what age were you when the one that stands out most in your memory happened?)
posted by Sleeper at 12:43 PM on April 8, 2013

That brief essay on the health care system (in which he mentions the a inevitability of national heath care) is really pretty amazing:
The trouble is, we are being taken by the propaganda, and it is bad not only for the spirit of society; it will make any health-care system, no matter how large and efficient, unworkable. If people are educated to believe that they are fundamentally fragile, always on the verge of mortal disease, perpetually in need of support by lealth-professionals at every side, always dependent on an imagined discipline of "preventive" medicine, there can be no limit to the numbers of doctors' offices, clinics, and hospitals required to meet the demand. In the end, we would all become doctors, spending our days screening each other for disease.

We are, in real life, a reasonably healthy people. Far from being ineptly put together, we are amazingly tough, durable organisms, full of health, ready for most contingencies. The new danger to our well-being, if we continue to listen to all the talk, is in becoming a nation of healthy hypochondriacs, living gingerly, worrying ourselves half to death.
posted by resurrexit at 12:46 PM on April 8, 2013 [6 favorites]

Lewis Thomas is perhaps my favorite writer. An incredible mix of science, wisdom, and beautiful language.

posted by Freen at 12:53 PM on April 8, 2013

Sleeper, I remember my parents reading "Lives of a Cell" to the whole family on a long car trip. This would have been right around the time it came out-- I'm remembering '78 or '79. I would have been ten or eleven years old, and my brothers and sisters all a few years older. We lived in England, but my father worked for a company building a liquid natural gas plant in the Sahara desert, and he took us with him on an inspection trip (to the middle of Algeria with a young family, with never a thought of danger or fear-- that was truly a different century-- and the Arabs and Berbers and Tuaregs all universally treated us with fine courtly grace and nomadic hospitality).

In my mind it is all tied together-- we had just read how all things are dependent on each other, then the next day or two we took a tourist trip to Timimoun, and my father said, "Look here on the edge of this mountain you can see the stone docks of the traders who would come in ships from Timbuktu more than a thousand years ago. But then the people here cut down all the trees, and there was nothing left in the soil to hold the water, so this place became a desert." It was a great feeling-- reading about a concept, then seeing it in reality in such a dramatic way, and also having your parents speak to you like you were an adult for the one of the first times. So, yes, very much a fan of Lewis Thomas and his elegant writing.
posted by seasparrow at 12:59 PM on April 8, 2013 [7 favorites]

I sincerely hope the "Reader's List" in that last Modern Library link is the result of some organized gaming of the online poll.
posted by rocket88 at 1:00 PM on April 8, 2013

Lewis Thomas was a wonderful writer. I really need to go back and reread some of his essays. It's been too long.
posted by tdismukes at 1:05 PM on April 8, 2013

No matter with whom I fall into conversation regarding books I've read, Lewis Thomas is the one I always recommend. His writing has been so very important to me. Every time I hear Mahler, even if it isn't his 9th Symphony, I smile and ponder the brilliance that surrounds because of that man.
posted by psylosyren at 1:36 PM on April 8, 2013

I sincerely hope the "Reader's List" in that last Modern Library link is the result of some organized gaming of the online poll.

My first thought, reading the FPP: "God, I hope seemore doesn't mean the readers' poll."
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:17 PM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wow, that Reader's List is something. Something that should be dissected and preserved in formaldehyde.
posted by sneebler at 5:53 PM on April 8, 2013

Yo, English teachers! I love The Scarlet Letter and Emerson and Pope and Italo Calvino and I can't get enough of Kafka: but: (oh, never use two colons in a sentence: sorry...I think a parenthetical colon would make it 2.5) Make 'em read some Lewis Thomas! Everybody loves nature, and reading such artful prose about flora and fauna almost removes them from the tyranny of those florescent light bulbs...
posted by kozad at 6:11 PM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Metafilter ---> Online catalogue of local library. A direct path often travelled!
posted by cacofonie at 7:56 PM on April 8, 2013

I always enjoyed The Youngest Science and its perspective on medicine, as well.
posted by hattifattener at 8:47 PM on April 8, 2013

I love Thomas for the poetry of his descriptions.

Last summer, I finally threw out my old yellow crumbling paperback copy of Lives of a Cell. It was rough--but when I decided on one last read, I realized how many pages were missing from moving around and being read while traveling, etc. Fortunately, I found a hardback in a thrift shop soon after. My bookshelf is happy again.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:03 PM on April 8, 2013

It was largely due to Thomas that I changed my career path to medicine. Probably encountered him in my nonfiction lit class. His essay about "halfway technology" in medicine has continued to guide my approach to patient care for 30 years now.
posted by neuron at 10:13 PM on April 9, 2013

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