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Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Reading Skills for Pleasure and Benefits - 4

 Another extremely important idea on reading came from Sir William Osler, legendary Professor of medicine at four universities - the Johns Hopkins University, University of Pennsylvania, McGill University and the Oxford University. His suggestion was about how to read medical literature. He said: “ whenever you want to learn about a disease, go to the most original paper on that subject and then read the latest review”.

That advice led me to read the Edwin Smith Surgical papyrus which describes medical knowledge in the ancient Egypt. There I found a  great description of tetanus, although they did not know at that time in history what it was. I also found a description of a charioteer who fell, hit his head on one side and lost use of his limbs on the opposite side. At that time in history, they did not know that the right half of the brain controls movements of the left side of the body and vice versa. There was also a description of how to reduce dislocation of the clavicle.

I have read and have a copy of the translation of Kashyapa Samhita. Kashyapa was a student of Athreya at the ancient university of Takshashila and probably practiced pediatrics in ancient India. I have read the original description of mumps by Hippocrates. During my visit to Padua, Italy a friend of mine arranged for me to see at the University library the original print of the first book ever published on Human Anatomy by Vesalius.

I also read passages from Morgagni’s original descriptions of organ pathology. Morgagni showed that clinical symptoms during life correlate with diseases of specific organs. For example, there is one description of a young boy with acute glomerulonephritis in this book. The clinical description of the boy during his illness includes swelling of the face and feet. The pathology findings in the kidney of this boy were those of acute glomerulonephritis. That book was the beginning of clinical medicine as we practice today, because Morgagni established that specific signs and symptoms exhibited by patients correlate with disease of specific organs.

By reading the original description we will understand what was it that the original observer saw which was different from what was known at that time. This also makes us humble, for we “stand on the shoulders of giants”.

By reading the latest review, we will learn how that original observation led to other observations and developments resulting in the current knowledge about that topic and also what questions have not been answered. To get the full benefit from reading the latest review, we have to read some of the crucial references cited in the review article or book. We need to make sure the studies were well-conducted, proper statistical methods were used and the conclusions are valid, given the methods used in the study.

Most of the original classics are in ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Latin, or Aramaic. This can be used as an opportunity to learn that language. This is a bonus with rich dividends and reading pleasure. It also gives an idea of how languages have evolved over the years. I am finding this pleasure of reading classic books in my own mother tongue. Those books use Tamizh language as used more than 1,000 years back. Using dictionaries and other sources one can understand the meaning of these words.

Fortunately, most of the classic texts are available in English translation. I found it helpful to start with one of those translations even for books in Tamizh and Sanskrit because of ease of searching with the Index list. Searching with the Index list in English is easier still in the electronic versions of very long texts and passages. Once I locate the passage or verse I am interested in, I go to the text in its original language and read it for myself, if it is in English, Sanskrit or Tamizh. 

In this process, you need to find a translation which is true to the meaning of the words as used originally, not interpretive translations. A case in point is English translation of Maha Bharata. By reading reviews of several translations, I found that Prof.Ganguli’s was the most authentic for verse-by-verse translation.

As mentioned earlier, I like to read a translation which gives exact references. For example, if I want to find passages in Rg Veda, I use The Artful Universe by William Mahoney. To read passages from Satapata Brahmana I read Roberto Calasso’s Ardor. To know more about Indian History, I read A L Bhasham’s The Wonder That was India. By using references in these books, I was able to get back to the exact passages in many Sanskrit  and Tamizh originals. That is how I found out about Rishi Dirghatamas  and Asya Vamasya Sukta.

In a book with the intriguing title “Nothing”, physicist Frank Close starts his discussion on “Early ideas on no-thing” with the following passage from Rg Veda: “There was neither non-existence nor existence then….”  Tracking it back to the source, I learnt about the Nasadiya Sukta of Rg veda. 

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