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Scientists' Nightstand: Paul Broks

Paul Broks trained as a clinical psychologist at Oxford University and went on to specialize in neuropsychology. He has pursued a career combining both clinical practice and basic research. He lives in Cornwall with his wife and two sons and is currently a senior clinical lecturer at Plymouth University. He writes a regular column for Prospect, the British magazine of current affairs and cultural debates.

Broks's Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology (Atlantic Monthly Press) was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award 2003. A mix of neurological case stories, speculative fiction and memoir, it is currently being adapted for the London stage.

Paul BroksClick to Enlarge Image

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure?

For pleasure I am reading Arnold Weinstein's A Scream Goes Through the House: What Literature Teaches Us about Life, and I've just finished Dan Brown's church-and-secret-societies thriller, The Da Vinci Code.

Workwise, I'm dipping into various things, as ever, including return visits to Antonio Damasio's The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness.

Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

Weinstein's beautifully written explorations of life, literature and art reflect some of my own preoccupations with embodiment and the fragile self. The aging and diseased body undermines our pretensions to selfhood; the "It" inevitably subsumes the "I."

Damasio is a reliable source of information and inspiration.

I picked up The Da Vinci Code on a whim at the airport on a recent trip to Dublin. It's cliché-ridden, formulaic, ridiculously overplotted, strewn with factual errors—including, in passing, a quirky misrepresentation of left-brain function—and the characterization is sub-comic book. But gorblimey, guv’nor (as Mr. Brown might have an Englishman say), I found it hard to put down.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

I read mostly at home. Anywhere and anytime will do. When the weather's fine I love to read out of doors and there's nothing better than a long train journey for settling into a good book. My wife says I spend a disturbing amount of time reading in the bathroom.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

Favorite books spring to mind more readily than favorite authors. I’ve been blown into other dimensions by certain novels—Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and Melville’s Moby Dick among them—but I confess I haven't managed to finish another book by either of those authors.

Kurt Vonnegut is a unique voice, and Slaughterhouse-Five, his mixed-genre, time-slip story of the bombing of Dresden, is a minor masterpiece. The unlikely blend of war story, science fiction and personal reflection leaves a lasting mark on the imagination.

I admire and enjoy the novels of Ian McEwan for the crystal clarity of the prose, the seamlessness of the storytelling, and the exploration of grand themes through the lives of ordinary people. For those unfamiliar with McEwan's work, The Child in Time would be a good place to start.

Recently I've become a fan of the Australian novelist Richard Flanagan, a linguistic swashbuckler and true fabulist—see Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in 12 Fish.

As for nonfiction, we are living through a golden age of science writing. The "Darwin Wars" in particular have thrown up a brilliant constellation of writers: Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Daniel C. Dennett, Stephen Jay Gould, Matt Ridley, Steven Rose, Michael R. Rose, among others.

I sometimes read popular books on physics and cosmology as a way of winding down. It's curiously relaxing to see oneself as an infinitesimally tiny speck of stardust in a vast, indifferent cosmos. Paul Davies and Timothy Ferris have the desired effect.

Literary disappointment: Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Get a life, Raskolnikov!

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

Impossible to say. 

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

I read René Descartes' A Discourse on Method and Meditations in my student days. The experience has never left me. It was the Penguin Classics edition with Frans Hals's portrait of the great 17th-century philosopher staring out from the front cover. Reading the Meditations felt like dissolving into those heavy-lidded eyes and into his thought processes. Descartes' erroneous but fatally beguiling division of mind and matter has become ingrained in our way of thinking, and the apparent irreconcilability of subjective and objective points of view remains one of the great conundrums in the science of mind.

Name three books you want to read but haven’t gotten to yet.

Cervantes's Don Quixote, Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Joyce's Ulysses, . . . Ah, the shame: to have reached middle age and not to have read these wonders of the Western canon! But do I really want to read them? How badly? Why do other books I want to read (and some I don’t) keep getting in the way? Why is life so short?

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

V.S. Ramachandran's The Emerging Mind, based on his recent BBC Reith Lectures, is a lucid and engaging tour of some of the most enticing territories of cognitive neuroscience. [Note: The Emerging Mind is only available in the United Kingdom.]

Melvyn Bragg's On Giants' Shoulders: Great Scientists and their Discoveries from Archimedes to DNA—the title of this highly accessible little book says it all.

As for fiction, see above. My advice is to dive in at the deep end.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Ian Glynn's An Anatomy of Thought: The Origin and Machinery of the Mind is a brilliant general introduction to brain science.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

Adam Zeman's Consciousness: A User's Guide is very well written and, despite the naff [clichéd] subtitle, offers a serious but digestible treatment of consciousness studies from the perspective of a practicing neurologist, but one who also happens to be trained in philosophy and the humanities.

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