Thursday, 20 August 2015

This hungry editor is sated once more

Typical writing attire.
Thoughts on reviewing books

This was written in 2012

At the time of my retirement in 1988 I became more interested in general writing.  During my professional years I did frequent reviews for the medical newspapers.  Then and later I did occasional reviews for the Irish Times and the Sunday Independent.  It was later, at the end of the millennium, when I was more than ten years retired, that I thought of reviewing all books I read as an academic exercise.  I have now collected about 140 reviews. None were on fiction. I had first read fiction in my early adult years when I discovered the vast store of sixpenny paperback Penguins, fiction and non-fiction. They were the basis of my real education.

The thrill of being a scholar...
Since my return to Ireland after four years in London as a postgraduate student and after my settling down in Dublin in 1950 after my appointment to St. Vincent’s Hospital, I became so absorbed in medical reading and subsequent medical epidemiology that I stopped all general reading and fiction and devoted my time to medical subjects only. Despite my widespread general reading after I retired from my hospital work in 1988 I never returned to the reading of fiction.

Most media reviews we encounter are straightforward and are published to inform the reader about the book’s content.  My reviews tend to be less specific in their purpose, often but not always impinging on my own special interests or prejudices.  My choice of reading tends to be eclectic with books chosen by chance or by being lent or by hearsay.  My interests are in all aspects of life but not in any specialised subject although there is an emphasis on recent Irish history because of my family’s close involvement in the revolutionary days of the early 20th century. My father had been the head of the Irish revolutionary army from March 1918 to May 1923 and the political head of the army from January 1922 to March 1924.

Trying to practise what I was preaching
During my professional lifetime as a practising cardiologist in my two hospitals – I was also a physician to the Coombe Lying in Hospital – I became involved in research into the coronary epidemic which emerged worldwide in the later 1950. It emerged in most advanced countries like a thief in the night. It was to involve me later in much travel and international contact during the international programme aimed at controlling the epidemic which stabilised by the 1980s and began to subside by the end of the century, thanks largely to identifying cigarette smoking. Heavy cigarette smoking had become widespread during and after the World War of 1939-1945.

Much had been achieved by the time I had retired from my epidemiology days. This research has been a major part of my work and that of my close colleagues at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin. Despite some references in our work to other heart subjects, coronary heart disease during my active days accounts for the bulk of our research. It was a worldwide programme in searching the causes of the morbidity and mortality of the epidemic and has been rewarded by the huge fall in coronary disease in our countries and the great increase in longevity which we are now enjoying in the world.  

Coláiste Mhuire Parnell Square. Abandoned in 2004
As an aside I have to say that I had a rather poor secondary education.  The revival of the Irish language was part of the policies of the new Irish government. My father was a devoted lover and speaker of Irish. He was a minister in the 1927-1932 cabinet and he was largely responsible, with a ministerial colleague, Ernest Blythe, in establishing an Irish speaking secondary school in Parnell Square in 1928 under the direction of the Christian brothers, an important teaching order which provided secondary education to the Irish after the Catholic Emancipation. I learned to speak the Irish language but in retrospect I can say that other subjects, including English, history, Latin and mathematics were on the curriculum, but the teaching and the speaking of Irish received priority and this emphasis can be judged by the results of my leaving certificate and by my success in leading my class in pass Latin with a mark of 41%, a level which just allowed me to join the medical faculty at University College Dublin at the age of 17.

However, I was fortunate that, about this time, I was introduced to the popular sixpenny Penguin paperbacks which over subsequent years were to provide me with a wealth of fiction and a huge source of non-fiction. I became devoted to these treasures of entertainment and of information and I have little doubt that my many hours of Penguin reading has been the most important source of education during my earlier years. Some of my children were also influenced by the paperbacks and, between my own library and that of my daughter’s, Barbara, we hold about 600 of these paperbacks in our libraries. They are still a valuable source of entertainment and information   provided by the writers of the early 1900s and their predecessors.

Should you keep notes or quotes whilst you are preparing a review?  Should you dictate or write a review as you read the book?  Should you permit fast reading or skipping of the text?  On reflection the best approach is to jot down reminders while reading which may contribute to the final review. It is best completed when the book has finally been read and perhaps after some more time to think about it. 

I have seldom had recourse to fast reading or skipping.  It tends to disturb the easy rhythm of the reading habit. But where you have a book of more than 400 pages where at least half is devoted to details of military and other specialised areas, as in my review of Khartoum, you might be forgiven for skipping through some pages. Skipping does leave a general impression of the skipped contents and can add to the final text.

In the final analysis, the satisfaction I have had in doing reviews is based on life in general, in expressing my own views and prejudices, and the benefit it may have in adding to my knowledge and retaining the gist of the book’s content. Without the review one’s memory of a book’s content can fade with the passage of time.   Time spent in writing and completing a review cannot be measured in terms of hours or days. The review may be completed shortly after finishing the book or may be delayed because of further thought and because of possible additions and deletions.  

Going out for a walk can be recommended; apart from its health contribution. Walking provides a good opportunity for reflection about your current book review.  No matter how you feel beforehand, you will always feel better after a walk and a walk alone under agreeable circumstances can provide a fine opportunity to think about your current review. It also may give the wandering mind ideas for another review. It is not uncommon that a rambling and a casual thought can, after reflection, lead to a blog which may be welcomed by a hungry editor.

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