Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Travels with Michael Crichton

I'm saddened to hear of Michael Crichton's passing. I've always enjoyed his novels; I remember reading Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, Congo, etc. in Jr High, and all were some of the first books I really just fell into and lost myself in.

I read "Travels" last year, which anyone around me probably knows from me going on and on about it. I'll just say now ... a great spirit of curiosity is something I value highly in myself and others. R.I.P sir.

NY Times book review:

THE novelist Michael Crichton toys with all sorts of faiths and superstitions in this diverse, more or less chronological collection of pieces. He meets with psychics in London who eat flowers. He bends spoons. He has conversations with a cactus in the desert, participates in ''energy work'' at the Institute of Mental Physics in the Lucerne Valley desert in California and discovers in himself a kind of healing body energy hitherto ''unknown to medical science.''

This energy is a vital force within us, he says, and it is distributed at various points in our anatomy (heart, ribs, forehead). It affects our sexuality, our emotions, our sense of survival. It can be transferred from one person to another by ''laying on hands.''

''There isn't any delusion,'' he insists, and he proves it by recalling the time a physician, Brugh Joy, held his hands a few inches from Dr. Crichton's chest and, as he received Dr. Joy's energy, Dr. Crichton was surprised by ''the intensity of it.'' It was as if ''somebody were holding a hot iron over my body.''

As more and more of his body was treated by a laying on of hands, he drifted into deep relaxation, close to sleep. After a while he awoke and walked outside and ''everything was glowing and alive and vivid. . . . I didn't want to talk. My sensations were too immediate. . . . I was demonstrating all the characteristics of a psychedelic experience, but I hadn't taken any drug.''

Dr. Crichton approaches ''energy work'' and everything else in this book like a scientist; he once taught anthropology at Cambridge University and is a Harvard-trained physician. As a matter of fact, he spends the first 90 pages of ''Travels'' reminiscing about his medical school days, and these are among the most startling and informative pages, especially the ones that deal with the doctor-student relationship. You'll learn a lot about sickness and death and the cynical attitude many doctors take toward their patients. (They appear more interested in diseases than in healing.) I particularly liked the piece that revolves around an autopsy. ''It is not easy to cut through a human head with a hacksaw,'' Dr. Crichton writes, ''the blade kept snagging the skin.'' His descriptions of the competition between medical students are brutal. ''In the labs, if you asked the person at the next bench a question, he'd tell you the wrong answer in the hope you would make a mistake, or, even better, start a fire.''

Dr. Crichton had the dubious distinction of starting more lab fires than anyone else. He also had the distinction of grinding out five thrillers under a pseudonym in order to pay for his tuition. Eventually, writing became more interesting to him than medicine. Like Conan Doyle and Walker Percy, he was about to join the ranks of the doctor-writers. In 1969, while completing his last year at Harvard Medical School, he published ''The Andromeda Strain'' (about germ warfare) under his own name. It was an instant best seller and sold to the movies. When he subsequently left medicine, one of his teachers commented, ''I knew you'd quit. Your fantasies are too strong.'' But it was more than that. Dr. Crichton believed that living by his wits would keep him free to change his life whenever he wanted, something he could never do if he remained a doctor. He moved to California; he wrote more best sellers, such as ''Coma'' and ''Terminal Man,'' and he directed movies like ''Westworld'' and ''The Great Train Robbery'' (which he also wrote). By the time he had reached 30, he was rich and famous and confused. Success hadn't made him happy. So he left Hollywood and began traveling to exotic places like Shangri-La and the remote highlands of New Guinea where he sought out ''direct experiences.'' The bulk of ''Travels'' is an account of these.

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