Remember when you first realised that there was a skull inside your face? That skeletons weren't just Hallowe'en shorthand for spooky, but inextricably knitted to the centre of your person? If that's too far back, how about this one: when you first learned that your eyes see the world upside down, and you have to constantly (and completely unconsciously) flip your vision to make sense of things? These moments throw the world a little off-centre – unsurprisingly, really, because they strike quite literally at our core. They tell us something we don't know about ourselves.
Gavin Francis' latest book, Adventures in Human Being, is filled with these kind of moments, where you find yourself re-examining your own body with something like awe. You can read a trailer of sorts for the book over at the Guardian, where Francis touches on the meteorology of the eyeball, the 'seed-like intricacy' of the wrist. There's a description of the brain, 'slippery and smooth, like an algae-covered stone pulled from a riverbed', and another of the area of the membranes of the lungs, 'equivalent to the leaf coverage of a 15- to 20-year oak'.
Francis is trained in medicine, and works as a GP; his LRB profile states that he is 'either in the clinic or the library'. His articles for the magazine explore the current state of the NHS, what it means to give pain relief, and the veracity of the Pulp Fiction adrenaline injection scene. Actually, he's also sometimes in the polar regions: his first two books were about the far North and Emperor penguins, respectively. 'It is difficult to decide whether Gavin Francis is a travel writer who moonlights as a doctor or a doctor who travels and writes on the side,' Ed O’Loughlin writes in the Irish Times. 'But if he is as good at slinging pills as he is at writing landscapes – geographical and anatomical – then his patients can count themselves fortunate.'
Anatomical travel writing is a good way of putting it. Adventures in Human Being gives us grand vistas, cultural history, triumphs of discovery and a renewed sense of mystery. It pulls apart the way the body reflects and is reflected in the way we look at the world.
'Public dissections fell out of fashion around the time doctors were growing in power: no longer guides to a mysterious inner kingdom, but autocrats protecting secret knowledge,' Francis writes. 'The time might be right to bring back public dissection, but instead of using scalpels and saws, I prefer to cut up the body using stories, literature and art.'
Gavin Francis will be discussing Adventures in Human Being at the Bookshop on 27 May. Book tickets here.