Faith, Madness, and Spontaneous Combustion: What Immunology Can Teach Us About Self-Perception

Gerald N. Callahan, Author . St. Martin's/ Dunne $23.95 (235p) ISBN 978-0-312-26807-7

Combining science and personal anecdote is no easy task, and Callahan's ambitious look at the relationship between immunology and selfhood falls somewhat short of the mark. Callahan—a poet, essayist and Colorado State University professor of immunology—aims to show how the immune system literally and metaphorically forms the basis for our identity. Weaving together bits of memoir, case studies of unusual incidents like human combustion and virally transmitted insanity, and basic explanations of immunology, Callahan shows how the immune system's main function—to distinguish between self and nonself, to defend the body from invaders—not only determines the boundaries of the basic biological "self" but can metaphorically be applied to our psychological selves as well. Discussing the concept of immunological memory, for instance, Callahan writes, "Enveloped viruses... are so named because they carry with them an 'envelope' of lipids and proteins taken from the host cell.... Each time we give the flu to our wives or our cold sores to our husbands, we also give them a little bit of ourselves." These metaphors unfortunately tend to be simplistic and pat. Those reading the book for straightforward scientific information or Oliver Sacks–style medical curiosities will probably be frustrated by the impressionistic prose and meandering narrative. While there are fascinating facts here, as well as some genuinely engaging recollections from Callahan's life, these are interspersed with self-indulgent whimsy. An unusual attempt at genre crossing, the book would have been better off as a traditional memoir without the popular science conceit. (Jan.)

Forecast:Callahan is being marketed as a successor to Oliver Sacks, but he lacks Sacks's gift for engaging narrative. Not a comfortable fit in any category and unlikely to be a crossover hit.

Reviewed on: 12/17/2001
Release date: 01/01/2002
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 256 pages - 978-0-425-18852-1
Peanut Press/Palm Reader - 978-0-312-70390-5
Ebook - 256 pages - 978-1-4299-7147-8
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