• What We’re Reading This Winter 2022

    Senior ophthalmologists share the best of what they’re reading this winter. Share what you’re reading and send your review to scope@aao.org.

    Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy
    By Nathaniel Philbrick
    Reviewed by J. Kemper Campbell, MD                                           

    The premise of Nathaniel Philbrick’s latest book, “Travels with George,” allows the acclaimed writer to juxtapose long-forgotten aspects of our nation’s infancy with pertinent observations of today’s society.

    The reader fortunate enough to open this book will be beguiled by the author’s lively and trenchant comments regarding George Washington’s impact on our nation’s remote past and also upon more recent headlines.

    Philbrick, his wife and a Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever named Dora made a similar journey more recently, following President Washington’s travels visiting all 13 original states during the early years of his presidency between 1789-92. Readers unfamiliar with duck-tolling or Nova Scotia retrievers should visit YouTube or read this book to educate themselves.

    Philbrick, who resides on the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts, has written previous books connecting his own life experiences to true historic events. “In the Heart of the Sea,” which was also made into a movie, deals with the sinking of a whaleship in the South Pacific by a vengeful whale. “The Last Stand” is a detailed account of Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s final battle. Both books occupy space in the reviewer’s library. The present book deserves its spot alongside.        

    Although Philbrick makes a cogent case for the United States being vastly different without the steadying influence of President Washington, the book is no hagiography. George Washington’s flaws, especially his relationship with slavery, are not downplayed. Readers may draw their own conclusions about the lasting effect of Washington upon our nation after reading the book.

    Regardless of the readers’ preconceived notions about our first president, enough new facts are revealed, and old myths dispelled to keep the pages turning rapidly. Many people are aware that Washington’s dentures were not wooden, but fewer know they were fashioned from horse’s teeth and hippo ivory. Fewer yet know that he first attempted transplantation of his missing teeth by purchasing nine healthy slaves’ teeth and having them placed into his own mouth. All the transplants failed.

    Philbrick’s own trips were spiced by the unique and interesting characters he met along the way. He slept in at least two of the original beds Washington had used and was nearly drowned in a waterspout near Cape Cod. Dora encountered a large black snake, but no lasting harm ensued. Readers who choose to accompany Philbrick, Washington, Dora and their fellow travelers will be glad they did.

    Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption
    By Laura Hillenbrand
    Review by John R. Stechschulte, MD

    This true story of Louis Zamperini was written by the author of “Seabiscuit.” This book has remained on the bestseller list since it was published in 2010.

    Zamperini was a troubled kid from Torrance, Calif. After fighting with bullies and when escaping from police, he displayed remarkable running speed. His brother Pete encouraged him to train in cross country running, which lead him away from delinquency. He became America’s fastest high school athlete and even neared a mile time of four minutes flat.

    Zamperini qualified for and competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He didn’t medal but he did set the world record for the fastest lap time in the 5,000-meter race. His dream was to win gold in what would have been the 1940 Tokyo Olympics.

    In 1941, he entered the U.S. Army air forces and became a bombardier. While on a search and rescue mission, his B-24 Liberator malfunctioned, leading to a splash-landing crash in the Pacific. He and two other crewmates drifted in two small lifeboats for 47 days. The Japanese captured him near the Marshall Islands.

    One year later his parents were told he was killed in action. He endured the horror of a prison and then a savage labor camp. With his Olympic status known, the guards targeted him for greater torture. He anticipated the U.S. victory while imprisoned because for weeks he saw American planes fly nearer and nearer his prison.

    Although nearly heartbreaking to read, Zamperini’s resilience of mind, body and spirit is inspiring. This is an amazing story of survival and forgiveness.

    Planet Money, NPR
    Reviewed by John R. Stechschulte, MD
    Several ophthalmologists have recommended this podcast series for review in Scope. Planet Money’s goal is to be “The Economy Explained.”

    Its first episodes in 2008, covered the U.S. housing and financial crisis. These podcasts are only six to 30 minutes long, yet they can cleverly cover complex issues such as tuition inflation, health care costs and the fraud scandal at Wells Fargo.

    Most ophthalmologists have never taken a college economy course, but we can still easily learn about financial issues while enjoying Planet Money stories. As an example, a recent Planet Money podcast revealed why a single small New Jersey deli has a market cap value of $100 million, and it tells us how the stock market works www.npr.org/transcripts/989625586.

    Please recommend to scope@aao.org your favorite podcast series so they can be shared in future editions of Scope.

    Scientist: E.O. Wilson: A Life in Nature
    By Richard Rhodes
    Reviewed by Alfredo A. Sadun, MD, PhD

    I’ve always enjoyed Richard Rhodes, whose works I had read often about physicists and the making of the atom bomb.

    So, when I saw he had written about Wilson a month ago, I jumped at the chance. Soon after I finished this book, I heard that E.O. Wilson had just died, at the age of 92. Wilson was once a professor of mine. I took his course on ants at Harvard.

    Students at MIT and Harvard were allowed one course per semester at the other institution. I found Wilson to be intelligent, gentle, earnest, and wildly enthusiastic. And his ideas were extremely fresh and imaginative. The early ideas on ant behavior set the seeds for his later works on sociobiology that shook many institutions up. Rhodes wrote this piece lovingly and treated Wilson with kid gloves whenever he described the scientific, political, and academic controversies. It was evident, that Rhodes was a close friend of Wilson.

    But I liked that intimacy and the point of view that came with it. As Rhodes said, Wilson could be said to have “saved” evolutionary theory by explaining the big bugaboo: altruism. Richard Dawkins popularized Wilson’s explanation in his book, “The Selfish Gene.”

    In studying the social behavior of ants and other animals, Wilson established the new field of sociobiology. He eventually concluded that human behavior is largely the product of heredity and the environment in a mathematically coherent way that calculates the amount of genetic preservation. Thus, he implied that there is really no free will; he called this the "genetic leash.” This, not surprisingly, caused a great blowback that came from what today we would call political correctness.   In particular, he was severely criticized, rather unfairly by those who didn’t read or understand his work, as an anti-feminist.

    Wilson's "deterministic view of human society” was targeted by several Cambridge scientists, including Stephen Jay Gould. These scientists, buttressed by liberal activists, accused Wilson of racism and misogyny. While presenting at the podium to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1978, Wilson was attacked by audience members who poured a pitcher of water on his head. Wilson accepted a dry handkerchief and finished his lecture. My favorite quote of Wilson, which is most relevant in today’s tribalistic society, is: “People would rather believe than know.”

    Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service
    By Carol Leonnig
    Reviewed by Samuel Masket, MD

    Given the task of protecting the lives of the U.S. president and vice president (and their respective families) the Secret Service conjures an image of extremely dedicated agents working for a team that is highly organized and outfitted with “state of the art” technology.

    But behind those physically fit and serious appearing agents who sport business suits, aviator sunglasses and clear wire earpieces, there are many other stories to be told.

    As Leonnig writes, the Secret Service was originally an arm of the Treasury Department and is now in Homeland Security. It was charged with tracking down and rooting out currency counterfeiters. Following President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, its responsibilities were expanded to include protecting the life of the president. As a result, additional agents were necessary, thus creating new recruiting and budgeting problems for the agency that continue even until today. It is surprising to learn that communications systems, as an example, are archaic; as we come to learn this is due in part to chronic underfunding, but also to inertia at high levels of the organization.

    Following a historical view of the early days of the Secret Service, the book offers insights to the specific presidencies of Kennedy through Trump, the challenges of protecting POTUS (president of the United States), dealing with their families and fighting budget constraints while attempting to modernize the Service. The reader will come to learn that George and Barbara Bush were favorites of the agents because they were treated like “family.” On the other end of the spectrum were the Clintons: Hillary and Chelsea were reportedly disrespectful to the agents and Bill … well, Bill was being Bill, making it hard to protect him.

    But it is the fiascos and failures of the Secret Service that make the book a fascinating, but ultimately frightening read. We learn of heavy drinking and staying out late by agents the night before the Kennedy assassination, “good old boy” behavior with prostitutes and drunkenness in Cartagena in advance of an Obama visit, failure to keep an armed intruder from entering the White House when the first lady was present, etc.

    There are other surprises in store for the reader. Moreover, one gets the sense that it is difficult for women and minorities to advance through the ranks. All of that told, however, there are dedicated and earnest agents who seem to keep the ship afloat and their stories are also shared. Overall, this is a somewhat shocking, but necessary read for all Americans.

    Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World
    By Fareed Zakaria
    Reviewed by Alfredo A. Sadun, MD, PhD

    It might seem premature to describe the post-pandemic world already. As I write this, we are hunkering down from the latest omicron wave and things look far from resolved.

    But Zakaria has proven prescient before, and I thought I’d give him another try. He succeeds in this work, written at the end of 2020, largely by drawing, from the COVID pandemic, a wider view of what works and doesn’t work in our various societies and governments today. Mostly, Zakaria is a keen observer of what happens in the U.S., socially, politically, economically, and culturally. He described COVID in the historical context of other pandemics, but we, as students of medicine, already knew that (see Dr. Newman in other issues of Scope). It was the non-medical parts that fascinated. 

    In general, Zakaria has a positive tone. He celebrates how resilient most of the world is. And he claims that “good societies” not only persevere but gain strength in times of crises. I found it interesting when Zakaria ranked the quality of governmental responses to the COVID crisis, in descending order, as best in Germany, Denmark and Austria followed by Belgium, Sweden and the United Kingdom which was the worst in Europe. He skips over much of Asia and Africa as not having dependable data, but I think he gives them poor marks. The best non-Western responses came from Taiwan and South Korea, which quickly contained the virus.

    But it’s the United States that he criticizes the most. We didn’t do so well and consumed the most resources in trying. By comparison, the Danes got most things right and should be the model for how we could do things here. The trouble in the U.S., is that we have disjointed government at many levels. It doesn’t help that most Americans no longer trust either the federal, or state, or local governments. Zakaria thinks the big divide in the US is not so much North and South but a deepening rift between those who are urban and rural. So, we bicker and fail to come together in crises.

    In the end, Zakaria says, the problem is that Americans must learn that government at any size should be held to the higher standards of good government. To do so, we must take more pride in government and less in political conquest. Otherwise, we are just left with a purposeless bureaucracy which tends to bungle things. Ultimately, what Zakaria urges, is what most of us want: A truth based (i.e., trust the science) government that is also less judgmental, kinder, and gentler. It used to be that way here, in the U.S. But that was when we trusted government.