Tuesday, February 05, 2008

EXTREMES by A. J. Dunning

The Book: A.J. Dunning, EXTREMES: Reflections on Human Behavior. Translated from the Dutch by Johan Theron. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich paperback first edition, 1992. Very good condition; pages are slightly age-browned, cover is slightly worn at corners.
First read: 1992
Owned since: 1992

Lots going on this week, so rather than a theme, I'm picking books that feel suited to the day. Today, being both Mardi Gras and Super Tuesday, is a day of extremes.

A. J. Dunning is a Dutch cardiologist who is fascinated by the intersection of biology and free will -- the heart as both muscle and metaphor. Extremes is a collection of 14 essays divided into four categories: Extremes of the Heart, Extremes of Men and Knives, Extremes of Faith, and Extremes of the Senses. Dunning explores topics ranging from the martyrdom of Joan of Arc to the absinthe-fueled excesses of Verlaine and Rimbaud. Almost as interesting as the essays themselves is the list of references at the end of the book, offering further reading on everything from ritualistic cannibalism to the history of battle fatigue.

It is human nature, Dunning observes, not only to rise to the occasion but to seek out extremes of experience. Why else would people leave their safe, warm houses to jump out of airplanes or go scuba diving? Why else, I ask today, would bright, successful people risk their professional success, their personal wealth and public humiliation to run for office? Why else would anyone think it was fun to drink to the point of alcohol poisoning and make a fool of oneself in exchange for a handful of cheap plastic beads?

Extremes are interesting. Extremes feel meaningful. Quite often, extremes are fun -- except when they're awful. And even when they're awful, they make for good stories.

Speaking of extremes, it's snowing hard here this morning. I'm supposed to drive up to Augusta in about an hour, but I think I might save my risk-taking impulses for a more attractive opportunity.

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