[To hear the episode of Come Read With Me where my friend Jess and I discuss this, click here.]
I’m a little torn on this book. At the same time that it reminded me of some fascinating books I’ve read over the past few years (Geraldine Brook’s March and William MacAskill’s Doing Good Better) I couldn’t help but compare it to Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. And unfortunately for Aptowicz, it wasn’t that great of a comparison. Don’t get me wrong, this was a very interesting read and I enjoyed the book. I’m sure this book had its own set of challenges in the research done, but I still can’t quite put my finger on why I wasn’t as much a fan of this.
At first I thought it was because Aptowicz was super young and this was her first book. Her writing style felt a bit like student-work, which she admits is when she got the idea and started writing originally, but I found out pretty quick I was wrong on this one. And it’s not her first book, but it is her first work of nonfiction. (Thanks Wikipedia.) Either way, I’m grateful to Avery, a Penguin Books imprint, for providing a copy.* And the best part is, if you’re interested in the book it’s just been released in paperback at the beginning of September! (AKA Yay for more affordability!; Publisher’s website.)
What I most enjoyed about this was the history of medicine and medical science in the United States. The history of the medical schools, the evolution of surgeries, the invention/discovery of anesthesia and even the politics of the Philadelphia universities fascinated me. Where things got lost were when Aptowicz attempted to connect all of these to Mütter (I still pronounce it Mutter, umlaut be damned.) life. It never happened naturally and always seemed forced. There were a few chapters where I stopped and actually said out loud, “wait what?!” and then had to go back to see what the chapter title was and why I was reading the miniature excerpt, usually about another historical figure, and then just move on.
I almost wish Aptowicz would have narrowed in on the history without the Mütter stuff and museum as most of it seemed like fluff and sex appeal for readers. All of this being said, I think who ever did the book layout and design did an astounding job! The numerous diagrams and photos were eerie, but perfect. Even the chapter headings taken from a speech by Mütter and the chapter titles kept me engaged when I was feeling a bit lost.
I won’t go into the ridiculous reviews on Goodreads, except to say I think Aptowicz could’ve done a better job at citation. She does have pages and pages of citations at the end of the work but there was no recognizable citation format that I could tell (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc?).
“As with all nonfiction projects, it was not unusual to come across conflicting information and/or bald spots within the research. I mined the extensive research seen in these endnotes to draw the best possible conclusions when those circumstances arose, and I would love to quote Eric Larson speaking about his own research for The Devil in the White City (an enormous inspiration for this book): ‘The citations that follow constitute a map. Anyone retracing my steps ought to reach the same conclusions as I.'” (313)
It was really weird and off-putting that there were pages and pages of notes at the end but no easy way to connect what I was reading to the notes at the end. (Yes, it was described how to do this, but it wasn’t intuitive to me.)
I think the book was better than my review lets on because of other distractions and comparisons, so that’s a fail on my part not on Aptowicz. She is clearly a talented writer as there were multiple times where I was overwhelmed with the impact Mütter had on modern medicine. I won’t say I teared up, but I can’t say that I didn’t get close a few times either!
This isn’t the last you’ll hear about this book as I’m planning an episode of Come Read With Me with my friend Jess that will be released in December.
Recommendation: I think it’s worth the read. I read it pretty fast and it’s inspired me to actually take a trip to Philadelphia at some point in the future. I’m not sure I’ll see The Mütter Museum (museum website), but I definitely want to see the city given this new perspective on the city.
Opening Line: “Thomas Dent Mütter is dead and the world will forget him.”
Closing Line: “Our work should never be done, and it is the daydream of ignorance to look forward to that as a happy time, when we shall wish for nothing more, and have nothing more to accomplish. – Thomas D. Mütter” (Not whited out as this is a work of nonfiction.)
*Avery publishing provided a copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. I received no compensation.