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To See By Common Light

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Update April 1, 2014: Samhu Iyyam is a pseudonym of David Katz, M.D. reVision is his work.

My ambition today is bold, and my aspirations fervent: nothing less than to see by common light. What a world we might own, what a future we might claim -- if only that.

But I, of course, am no source of any such light. I am just like you, with perceptions bounded by experience, conventions, convictions, and preconceptions -- the last of those perhaps at times insidious enough to go unremarked. They are likely there just the same. So any light I can offer is doomed to bounce off just such walls, and cast shadows into corners, propagating discord and doubt.

But I cling to those ambitions and aspirations just the same. I have long espoused my own hopes about a common source of light. I have suggested what I think public health and the human condition might be if we more reliably embraced common cause, recognized common humanity, claimed common ground, and created the future every loving parent wishes to predict for their child. But for the boxes we cannot out-think or out-see, and the corners that incubate shadows, what a universe of possibilities might open up to us.

In my most recent column, my reflections turned from light to shadow as I noted the common hazard of seeking illumination only while peering through the tunnel constraining our vision as it pertains specifically to nutritional epidemiology. For more on that topic, I refer you to that prior column, and the others like it that came before.

For now, let's agree that the widely conceded hazards of tunnel vision are relevant to much more than nutrition, or epidemiology. They certainly have implications for those, but equally so for virtually everything else. When we look only through any given tunnel of preconception, whatever the topic or terrain, the light at the end is all too likely to be the oncoming train of contradiction, conflict and disillusionment.

And so it is I write today, with ambition refreshed, aspirations rekindled, and nothing less than hopeful delight, having been among the first to stumble upon a potential source of just the right kind of illumination -- a work of fiction entitled reVision. The book in fact offers up this very line: "A light to banish last shadows from a corner must shine from without." I don't know that reVision was intended to be that light, but to my read -- it may well be exactly that.

Putatively the first book in the Lore of the Corners trilogy, reVision is an epic adventure; a saga set among the stars; a poignant romance; a tale of indelible characters, vivid landscapes, cosmic reaches, great conflict and uplifting reconciliation. It is first and perhaps foremost a fun and captivating story. It is, clearly, a fiction -- but tellingly, the book serves up this quote attributed to Jessamyn West: "Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures." After reading reVision, I am inclined to append only: amen.

Maybe it was my own long quest for better light that caused me to find it here -- but I don't really think so. I read a lot. It's an occupational hazard as author and columnist, physician and researcher. But I read for the pleasure of it as well, non-fiction and fiction alike. And I am the product of a liberal arts education that gave me privileged access to great works of literature and unique insights into them. Even so, I have not often come upon a book that tempted me to declare "eureka!" before.

I believe reVision may shine the very light to which it invites common aspiration. It serves up a story in which passions readily traverse the spaces dividing planets let alone peoples, and in which an interplanetary war is precipitated in the absence of any evil. As the title is perhaps intended to suggest, there are entirely different ways of seeing all that is around us.

I found the writing -- prose that nonetheless managed to hint at epic poetry -- as enthralling as the story was riveting. In reVision, Colleen McCullough meets John Milton. Yeats meets Yourcenar. In the blend of rollicking adventure with utopian aspiration, J.K. Rowling meets Gene Roddenberry. Where characters are vividly rendered and complex ideas distilled to stunningly simple clarities, Dickens meets Dawkins. As a clash of other worlds illuminates the better ways our world might be, Plato's Republic meets Lord of the Rings. Where lyrically beautiful writing and deep currents of humanism traverse expanses of law and folklore, science and faith, passion and politics -- the Bible, Bill of Rights and Bhagavad Gita commingle.

And so it is as a scientist, always striving to see outside the tunnel, to apply the proper blend of skepticism and open-mindedness, that I write today to recommend a work of fiction as a source of surprising light. I have long borrowed the rhyme and rhythm of John Godfrey Saxe to point out the perils of mistaking elephant parts for the whole, and applied that poem and parable to the practical challenges of medicine and public health. I have long used the metaphor of a polar bear in the Sahara Desert to help my patients and audiences better understand themselves and the origins of their struggles with health and weight. Why, then, shouldn't a work of fiction best sever the Gordian knots that entangle our culture, and shackle our best destinies?

I love a good epic adventure, and had a great deal of fun reading reVision -- falling in love with several characters along the way. But I also finished with a sense of illumination from a deep source -- and the gift of fewer shadows in my corners. The most opportune comparison may be to truly great wine. There are depths and complexities to reward those inclined to seek them. But there is also a great and simple pleasure, readily accessible to all.

Perhaps the one true common ambition of all great human enterprise -- art and faith and science alike -- is illumination. But inevitably, when we wield the torches, our efforts cast shadow as well as light.

So maybe it's true -- and the light to banish last shadows from a corner must shine from without. Maybe only other ways of seeing, and intimate views of other worlds that might be, will help us clearly perceive and fully appreciate the world we have, and the worlds of opportunity before us. It is tangled up in such musings that I am privileged to share reVision with you, and pay my discovery forward.

I am confident you will find extremely enjoyable hours on its pages. But I am hopeful of much more. The book may in fact be a light from without, and if so -- perhaps it can help many more of us to see by common light.

-fin

reVision, Lore of the Corners Trilogy, book 1

The founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center, Dr. Katz is the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions, including an honorary doctorate and nominations for the position of U.S. Surgeon General. An accomplished author and acclaimed orator, he has been hailed by colleagues as the "poet laureate" of health promotion.

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