Heart murmurs 

The Sublime Engine offers a broad history

The heart, literally and figuratively, has been the object of fascination for centuries, from the ancient Egyptians' belief that the sacred organ would fly to heaven entombed in a scarab, to the kitsch of Valentine's Day. It was judged in a 1300's BC treatise as the epicenter of anatomy, by theologians and poets since Homer (Achilles spends much of the Odyssey actually having an argument with his heart) as both our communicative interaction with the divine and the muscle that confined our unruliest desires. It has baffled physicians and lyricists alike as the symbol of life, death and love. And in The Sublime Engine, brothers Stephen and Thomas Amidon (a novelist and Kalispell-based cardiologist respectively) graph the biography and conception of the human heart with a rather casual look into the heart's role in history, religion, literature and science.

Condensed into six sections that hurtle forward to relevant periods in cardiology—each is introduced with a creative non-fictional tale that illuminates the mindset of a particular era—it is an informative, albeit slipshod, journey through the chambers of humankind's indomitable machine. While early Hebrews and Christians obsessed over the heart's conversational relationship with their God, Greek medicine came to be dominated by the violent physician Hippocrates (he and his followers allegedly torched the temple of Asklepios for practicing quack healing). Saturated in outmoded Catholic superstition, medieval theorists and doctors envisioned the heart as a kind of throbbing Kindle, written on and powered by the creator. And while dissection would have revealed much about the enigmatic organ, the authors point out, cutting into a cadaver was not permitted until the 14th century, and even then curious physicians were not entirely certain what they were looking for.

click to enlarge The Sublime Engine - Stephen and Thomas Amidon - Hardcover, Rodale Books - 256 pages, $24.99
  • The Sublime EngineStephen and Thomas AmidonHardcover, Rodale Books256 pages, $24.99

Occasionally thrilling, The Sublime Engine is more often an eloquently written timeline. We are informed that urine from postmenopausal nuns was used in the first anti-clotting drug, without being told how this strange discovery was made—and it is the absence of probing details that comprises the book's greatest fault. What kind of author would tease his readers by mentioning a group called the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned and not elaborate it's history? (It's an organization that studies resuscitation, now known as the Royal Humane Society).

Although their approach is haphazard, the Amidons are adept at relating a spacious narrative as they tell the story of the heart's gradual emergence into scientific scrutiny with the revolutionary work of Sir William Harvey, the first to show that blood circulates throughout the body. In a chapter titled "Current Heart," they narrate the achievement of Werner Forssmann, who implanted a catheter into his own heart, the invention of a primitive ECG in the 1880s and Galvani's popularized experiments of electrifying the heart's syncopated language—the basis for the pseudo-science of Frankenstein. Cardiology is portrayed as a tradition of frustration and plodding advances, showing that after decades of research and invention, the heart truly is a state of mind.

As a cultural guide The Sublime Engine cursorily rummages through the poetry of Dante and Donne, comments on Shakespeare's fixation on the heart as the cause of his characters' extreme bursts of love and psychosis and goes on to examine Damian Hirst's grotesque, anatomical sculptures. While science has usurped the heart from yearning Romantic poets, the authors remark, it has retained its clichés by way of popular films (21 Grams) and insipid advertising ("I Love NY"). The book's frequent lapses into anecdotal lore are some of the more entertaining bits of its literary scope: Thomas Hardy's dog supposedly devoured its owner's heart while Mary Shelley kept her husband's charred organ in her desk. Not to mention the initial process of measuring blood pressure, which involved the trachea of a goose, a dead horse and a small glass tube.

Paradoxically, The Sublime Engine is severely limited by trying to be so unlimited in its cultural and scientific references—stretched far too loosely to thoroughly treat any one thing in full. While spanning the inner world of emotion and the outer one of experiment, the authors' relatively brief book never really becomes more than a useful chronology with a few nifty short stories thrown in. There is nothing significantly wrong with the work's leapfrog, Idiot's Guide approach, except that it reads at times like an abridged edition of a far more authoritative text. Although certainly fascinating and maybe even vital to a culture whose knowledge of the heart is a dumb emoticon, The Sublime Engine's story is one that could be gleaned by following a few links on Wikipedia.

Stephen Amidon and Thomas Amidon read from The Sublime Engine at Shakespeare & Co. Saturday, Feb. 19, at 7 PM. Free.

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