A Renaissance Man Livens and Enlightens

WANT to assess your liberal education? Forget the Educational Testing Service and turn to Gerald Weissmann's third collection of sparkling essays. Expect to be intimidated. Dr. W. is a Renaissance Man. He knows music, art history, science history, history, architecture, literature, foreign languages, epidemiology, and current events. He'll stretch your mind's hamstrings. His ranging discussions stay just within grasp.

Weissmann knows how to write lean but challenging prose. Keep a scrap of paper close at hand to jot down the words you don't know.

Weissmann's sketches are not true essays. Sentence diagrammers will find insufficient structure and analysis. His essays are virtual letters, one half of an erudite correspondence. They weave together reverie, personal experience, remembered reading, and digested history, art, and science. Each essay is a stream of consciousness covering sundry subjects. Common themes thread each piece together and the pieces into the collection.

In ``Gulliver in Nature,'' Weissmann begins in the town library of Woods Hole, Mass., marveling at the latest torrent of scientific reports. Here he repeats a common complaint of scientists and clinicians, the near impossibility of keeping up with science. But then after noting an observation of Aldous Huxley, Dr. W. digresses to the glossy graphics of modern journals, and then to the pathos of scholars who find themselves scooped. Sometimes, reading journals is akin to reading casualty lists. You may find someone you know there.

After a brief pause for Diderot, Weissmann lights on an esoteric but telling monograph. It describes an antiparasitic drug that affects not only animals but also their dung. Their excrement becomes as biodegradable as plastic lunch bags. Pastures are endangered. Both the article's substance and writing remind Weissmann of Jonathan Swift and ``Gulliver's Travels.'' There follows an analogy between the monograph and Gulliver; then Swift's views of science and science writing.

Ruefully, Weissmann admits science is now too voluminous for words. Even more, it is too much for the atrophied literacy of modern Americans. We need pictures, videos, and simulations.

All 14 essays combine divers times, places, people, contexts, and fields. Weissmann delights in surprising but enlightening associations.

In ``Gertrude Stein on the Beach,'' he starts with an old photograph of students collecting tidal specimens. A young Gertrude Stein is among the students. Weissmann unfolds a filigree of associations that locate Stein within the family tree of 20th century intellectuals. One sees not only her progenitors and progeny, but also her nieces and nephews. Rock-and-rollers and the discovers of DNA are Stein's nephews. Rock, DNA, and Stein's prose all sport short repetitive combinations.

In ``Inflammation from Khartoum to Casablanca,'' Weissmann traces, from Roman times to the present, changing explanations for inflamed joints and wounds. The surprise here is that this thinking influenced and was influenced by matters far afield from medicine.

At times the essays are tough sledding. Some are brief discussions of complex subjects, and presume uncommon knowledge. Weissmann compensates with a spry yet delicate delivery that is as clear as short can be. He is always interesting and often funny.

``The Age of Miracles Hadn't Past'' skewers Medicare by categorizing the healing miracles of the saints for the purposes of federal reimbursement. ``Haussmann on Missiles'' is Art Buchwald with a PhD: Paris's 19th-century city planner instructs Congress on the deployment of the MX missile.

Wit spices all Weissman's essays except the last, in which he pulls his scholarly banner down and runs up the liberal Jolly Roger for an assault on the antiabortion movement.

Weissmann's self-depictions and revelations focus his message. He is an exemplar, salesman, and apologist for his class: the intellectual bourgeoisie, or what some call Eastern establishment liberals. He treats all others gingerly.

His life has much to recommend it. He serves the sick, summers at Woods Hole, and takes sabbaticals in London, Paris, and Italian villas. He listens to good music. Above all, he reads, observes, and contemplates. He believes that science and art have benefited and will continue to benefit humankind, tangibly. He believes both culture and the natural world are wondrous. Those too caught up in day to day busyness should disenthrall themselves and look around. They can begin with this book.

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