November 9, 2009

Two New Books Worth Reading

Two books recently published should be of interest to visitors to this site. The first is Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream, by Carl Elliott (WW Norton, 2003). The other book is Raising America: Experts, Parents and a Centruy of Advice About Children, by Ann Hulbert (Alfred A Knopf, 2003). Continue reading for brief reviews of both books.

Better Than Well is a fascinating look at the ethics of the technologies of self-enhancement. Elliott covers everything from surgeries to drugs (including Ritalin for children). Some of his examples are extreme, e.g., individuals who don't feel "complete" or "themselves" unless they have a leg or arm amputated. Sounds weird but Elliott puts these examples in the context of trangender individuals or breast reductions, etc. to make his points. I've heard Carl Elliott speak and he is far less neutral in person than he is in the book in sharing his opinions about the ethics of doctors, medicine and society in servicing the better than well.

Ann Hulbert has written a very readable history of experts' advice to parents (especially mothers) over the last century in America. From the earliest pediatric advice of Dr. Emmett Holt (one of the founding pediatricians of Babies Hospital at Columbia where I went to medical school) and G. Stanley Hall, one of the first American psychologists from Clark University (where I did my undergraduate work), Hulbert traces a recurring theme of discipline versus nurturance as the twin polarities of advice giving over the hundred years. She extensively covers Watson vs. Gesell in the 1920s, the rise (and fall?) of Benjamin Spock, the dominance of Berry Brazleton of the last 20 years or so, and the return of the conservative wing of Christian fundamentalist advice givers like James Dobson and John Rosemond. Hulbert does a very nice job connecting the childhood and biographies of these men (interesting except for some few pages on Penelope Leach all the advice givers are not mothers) to the theories that they came to proselytize.

Conclusion after 100 years: La plus ca change, la plus la meme chose (the more things change the more they stay the same). She doesn't really cover the history of child pathology, e.g. religion to Freud to the brain. Also I do think discipline practices in this country have been eroding over the past 150 years since families left the isolation of the farm. Kids congregating in high school away from their parents really sped things up -- or down --depending on one's perspective.

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