A round-up of true-life horrors to darken you summer.
The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers
In what is surely one of the most interesting books of the summer, Joanna Bourke, a history professor at Birkbeck, University of London and a Fellow of the British Academy, explores the history of pain—how we describe it, how we think about it, and how we deal with it.
Bourke writes that we’ve spent far more time documenting pain alleviation rather than exploring pain itself, and her detailed survey, focusing on the past three centuries, will surprise and inform all readers.
One would think that pain hasn’t changed much over time—pain is pain, after all—but while migraine accounts have remained similar, our relationship to suffering, and sufferers, has changed in dramatic ways. Once thought of as a supernatural punishment or an opportunity for personal growth, pain is now considered an external evil, an inconvenience, something to be eradicated rather than embraced.
Most striking, for me, is the chapter on estrangement. Pain isolates the afflicted, but remarkably, it’s the person in pain who does the distancing. Be it the stigma of sickness, the desire to insulate loved one’s from their suffering, or simply not to be thought of as a whiner, the sufferer tends to keep their agony to themselves.
And as anyone in the throes of a migraine can attest, communication isn’t a vacation. Bourke writes: “As well as isolating people-in-pain from their families and friends, physical discomfort works against human exchange by blunting the higher senses and intellect” (46).
Paradoxically, pain narratives also create and strengthen communities, such as support groups that arise around particular afflictions.
Bourke is no stranger to uncomfortable topics. Her other works include Fear: A Cultural History; Rape: Sex, Violence, History and Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War.
Utilizing a variety of sources—old medical books, doctor’s notes, poetry, anecdotes, letters and others—Bourke compiles a well-rounded account of suffering, accessible to academics and casual readers alike.
Reading The Story of Pain is a bit like enjoying a sad song on a sunny day. This intellectual read might not alleviate that next migraine any better than “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” can dampen the sting of heartbreak, but it’s interesting to contemplate from an academic distance.
Chinese Comfort Women
Being obsessed with all things Japanese, it’s difficult to imagine the atrocities committed by Imperial Japan. But the horrors of Dai Nippon Teikoku (which officially ended in 1947, two years after Japan surrendered to the Allies at the end of World War II) still resonate for the victims.
Among them are the “comfort women”—young girls from occupied countries, such as China and Korea, who were forced and coerced into prostitution, enslaved at military brothels.
In Chinese Comfort Women, Peipei Qiu, along with two China-based scholars, provides the oral history of a dozen survivors. It’s a dark, important narrative, an old wound that still stings, a reminder of the darkest hour of the 20th century.
In another generation, there will be no more survivors of WWII, and Qiu, Zhiliang and Lifei have done a great service by recording the personal narratives of these women while they’re still with us.
Modern Conspiracies: The Importance of Being Paranoid
Emma A. Jane and Chris Fleming
(Release date: Aug. 28)
Here is a book certain to lend credence to the quip: Just because I’m paranoid, that doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me. This academic book, authored by two Australian professors, reconsiders conspiracies—and their theorists—not as part of the lunatic fringe, but as a window to our relationship with the truth.