Flu season is definitely here again, if the number of sneezes, wheezes, and coughs I’ve been hearing all week is of any indication. In fact, I've also been using up tissue box after tissue box in an attempt to keep my nose from having its annoying way for more than a week now. And as I contemplate on my lack of foresight (vitamin C), I can’t help but think of Virginia Woolf’s essay On Being Ill. It begins with what is probably one of the longest sentences in English literature:
“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his 'Rinse the mouth—rinse the mouth' with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”
If only Woolf had met Oliver Sacks.
Sacks is a British-American neurologist and the best-selling author of Awakenings and A Leg to Stand On. I discovered him when a high school friend lent me the book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. Now, you’d think that a story about people’s neuroses would be boring, but Sacks is a wonderful storyteller. While it helps that the illnesses he writes about are, to put it simply, stranger than fiction (read the title), the way he analyzes each patient he comes across is both insightful and delightful.
Of course, both Woolf and Sacks are probably not good reads for those who are currently sick, especially since most of us tend to become paranoid after reading about other people’s illnesses. However, it wouldn’t hurt to save reading their works for another day, would it? At least, it’ll help us gain a different perspective on our illnesses, and perhaps even cultivate an appreciation for our health, which we so often take for granted.
(Cover of On Being Ill courtesy of Paris Press, cover of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and other Clinical Tales courtesy of Simon & Schuster)
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