June 2017 | Issue 30

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What are we reading?


By Professor Michael Ferenczi, Assistant Dean for Years 1 & 2 and NTU Senate Chair

 

OneLKC - Micheal Ferenczi.jpg Prof Ferenczi in his favourite reading spot at his Johor Bahru home

 

Reader profile

I do not read many books in a year – no more than a dozen or so – no time, or I lack the energy. However, when I start a book, I get very engaged. I can’t put it down, or can’t wait to get back to reading. I read a wide variety of books, from novels to biographies – history of science is always interesting.

Amongst recent reads, I enjoyed The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, a rather dry historical review of computing from the early concepts of computation in the time of Ada Lovelace to the internet of Tim Berners-Lee. I also enjoyed The Gardens of Consolation, in French, by Iranian author Parisa Reza, an emotional story of life and love in rural Iran covering many of the historical changes of the 20th century.

My most significant book of all times? As an adolescent, I was very moved by the dreamy Le grand Meaulnes, the only book by Alain Fournier who died in the trenches in 1914 at the age of 27. Later on, I was much taken by Darkness at Noon, by Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler, whose conversion from ardent communist to anti-communist holds parallels with that of my father’s. A common thread in my reading may be the historical and cultural perspective which the books bring to my understanding of our world.

Memoirs of Hadrian

Memoirs of Hadrian is a novel in the form of a letter written by the Roman Emperor Hadrian to his successor, Marcus Aurelius, with whom he wishes to share his life’s lessons. The novel, a masterpiece of historical scholarship, was written in French in the 1950s by Marguerite Yourcenar, the first ever female writer to be elected to the Académie Française, and translated into English by her life-long friend Grace Frick.

Hadrian was above all a brave and successful soldier, who led by example and maintained the borders of the vast empire through wise application of strategy and his understanding of the limits of military power. He was widely read, loved the arts, developed an interest in architecture and town planning, and used his travels to enrich his understanding of all the cultures around the Mediterranean Sea.

He was brought up in Spain but spent many years soldiering in the Balkans and Middle East; and travelled to Egypt, Mesopotamia, Northern and Eastern Turkey, Greece, and of course Gaul and England. Hadrian fell in love with a Turk called Antinous who died at a young age, but who left a life-long mark on the Emperor and was an inspiration for works of art and devotion.

Hadrian’s wisdom led him to build the 80-mile wall across northern England as he realised it was a more effective way to protect the people of England from raids by the Caledonians than to fight expensive battles. His wall resulted in peace, economic development and prosperity for the South.

Hadrian was not fond of politics, but was shrewd enough to have the worst of his enemies murdered when necessary. And yet, he had compassion for his soldiers, prisoners and slaves. In his letter, he wonders how much longer the empire would survive after his impending death, realising the menace of the growing powers assembling along its border, but he felt he had done what he could to maintain and protect Rome.

It is not an easy read, but it is compelling, as the Roman empire of two thousand years ago is brought to life, and is contemplated with humanity by one of the great world leaders. It is striking how much of the ancient daily life is retained in our lives today, and how concerns about traffic jams, health, ageing, relationships, love, development and economic sustainability resonate with a 21st century reader. His wisdom and humility permeate the book, and his concerns for the future of Rome transcend personal vanity. He is fully taken by the bigger picture, perhaps because he was free from the distraction of children of his own or family.

It is a poignant book as the most powerful person in the universe contemplates his demise at the age of 60, feeling his strengths slowly ebb away: “I have ceased to quarrel with physicians; their foolish remedies have killed me, but their presumption and hypocritical pedantry are work of our making: if we were not so afraid of pain they would tell fewer lies.” Have our standards of evidence in Medicine changed these feelings, or do they still resonate today? Are benevolent lies still seen as part of medical practice?