It sounded thrilling to me when I learned that Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel about botany and exploration in the Victorian era, The Signature of All Things, is competing with five nonfiction books for the Wellcome book prize, which is awarded to the best book of the last year featuring a “medical theme.” I just love the idea that a novelist can so master an area of scientific inquiry and bring it alive in a work of fiction that it can compete for a prize with nonfiction authors who have very different tools to work with.
The organizers of the Wellcome book prize believe that ” we are all touched by experiences of medicine and health in our lives, and stories that explore these encounters have great capacity to make us think afresh about what it means to be human”. The judges looked for books that “reward curiosity, inspire debate, move us, and through writing of the highest quality challenge the ways in which we imagine ourselves and the world around us.”
How wonderful it is when two very different fields of endeavor like literature and medicine come together in ways that enrich us and give us a deeper understanding of the human condition. After all, isn’t that what we’re all striving for: to find new ways to understand and explore what it means to be alive and living in the world?
Think about all the writers you truly admire — the ones you return to and enjoy rereading. It’s more than likely that the stories they are weaving are ones that have a universal, long-view flavor to them. They feel durable and reliable, unchanging, somehow, don’t they? They aren’t dealing with something fleeting or shallow, but with something enduring and deep: something that matters, that reveals us to ourselves.
So let’s be bold, like Elizabeth! Let’s tackle something that speaks to the human condition in ways that remind us of exactly what it means to be human. And write on!