The podcast ScienceFriday has been a reliable source of book recommendations, and such was the case on November 9, when I heard an interview with cardiologist Dr. Sandeep Jauhar called “Mysteries of the Heart.” Jauhar is the director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, he is the author of two previous books, and he is an op-ed writer for The New York Times. The episode discussed his latest book, Heart: A History.
What caught my ear and caused me to read the book was the word “mystery” — how can an organ we’ve studied so thoroughly and managed to treat so well still surprise us?
The answer? Metaphor.
The heart is an organ, sure, and Jauhar describes in thorough, not-for-the-squeamish, detail about how advances in treatment of heart disease have come about. But he recognizes the heart is also a metaphor. Every chapter opens with an actual patient’s experience, including that of Jauhar and his family.
As a writer, Jauhar is aware of the many ways we use the word “heart” in English to refer to something other than the actual organ. As a doctor who studies cardiac failure, he is also aware that metaphor sometimes comes closer to describing heart failure than medicine.
Every note I highlighted in this book is about this interaction between what a word or phrase with the word “heart” actually means and what it metaphorically means. And just in case you think I’m approaching this book too much like an English major, Jauhar titled part 1 of the book “Metaphor.” In that section he writes, “If the heart bestows life and death, it also instigates metaphor: it is a vessel that fills with meaning.”
Jauhar, born in America to Indian parents, says these metaphors exist across cultures. He mentions many phrases we use all the time: “take heart,” “speak from the heart,” “learn by heart,” “take something to heart,” “change of heart,” “get to the heart,” and that special place, our “heart of hearts.” What does all that language have to do with the actual heart, that four-chambered organ at the center of our being? A lot — that, we know. How much do the two interrelate? That, we don’t fully know. That’s why part 3 is titled “Mystery.”
In other words, it is increasingly clear that the biological heart is extraordinarily sensitive to our emotional system — to the metaphorical heart, if you will.”
As fate would have it, Maryanne Wolf, author of the book that inspired this column, appeared on SciFri the following week, in a segment titled You Are How You Read. In Reader, Come Home she says reading metaphor is powerful because it activates multiple parts of the brain. For example, reading a metaphor about texture stimulates the region responsible for touch.
That means reading this book about the the heart affected the way my brain interacted with my actual heart. A couple of times I got anxious, thinking of various emotional stresses my heart has suffered. Other times I relaxed, thinking of the physical and spiritual things I do to benefit my heart. It would have been interesting if I could have been hooked up to an EKG while reading.
After so many years in the business, I see heart shapes everywhere: in the splash of raindrops on my windshield, in the beets I slice in my kitchen, in strawberry slivers and bitten cherries.”
I see them everywhere too. I put heart emojis into texts, to communicate love. I know how to cut hearts out of a folded piece of paper to make a valentine. It’s a daily shape in my life. And after reading this book, I’ll see that shape differently.
If I hear the phrase “broken heart,” I’ll think of cardiac arrest. If a sermon mentions people hardening their hearts, I’ll picture clogged arteries. If a friend tells me she’s “lost heart,” I may want press her to tell me what things she is doing to take care of her physical heart.
Because there is a reason we use phrases like “take heart” when we want someone to be brave. When bravery is needed, the actual heart works harder.
Dancing Prophet, our own Glynn Young
The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson (If you’ve read this 1959 classic, please contact me. And the Netflix series doesn’t count.)
Heart: A History, Sandeep Jauhar
Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith (Pulitzer-winner for poetry, from the current U.S. poet laureate)
Early Readers and Picture Books
Middle Grade and YA
1. What books have deepened your understanding of metaphor?
2. Did you make some time for deep reading this month? What stories stirred your soul?
3. Share your November pages. Sliced, started, and abandoned are all fair game.
Browse more Reader, Come Home
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro