This is a frustrating book for someone like me. The cover pictured on Goodreads suggests it is basically about international travel. The cover of my edition should have hinted to me that it would not be specifically about that, given the stars on it. Anyway, this book is about three separate things: Crichton’s training as a doctor, Chricton’s international travel and what he calls his “inner travel.” I’m going to talk about all three.
In the first part, Crichton discusses his education and training as a doctor. Crichton may strike you as misogynist and sexist now – and entirely too privileged – but he seems like he was a remarkably progressive doctor who really did care about patients. At least according to Chricton, this partly why he quit. If you can take him at face value – and you should be wary because he admits to writing this much later – this part is interesting both in how it illuminates institutional dysfunction and how it portrays the struggles of a smart, sensitive person in an institutional setting. (By the way, if you’ve read A Case of Need, which was written while he was working in these hospitals, it does seem like Chricton is giving a pretty fair account of himself, his feelings at the time and his problems with these hospitals.)
Next, we have the travel parts of the book divided into two types. The first time is international travel. These follow a pattern: Chricton goes somewhere or does something which he thinks he understands or can do and finds out he has grossly underestimated it – be it the task or the culture. Chricton then reflects upon what he learned. He does this over and over again and it makes him seem rather foolish and flawed. Now, he is writing with the benefit of hindsight so it’s very possible he didn’t understand a lot of this at the time. (It does make one think that, if he was wrong about so many of these trips he might have been wrong about the idea that allowing sexual harassment law suits would create a slippery slope for manipulative, aggressive women to get ahead in business, or that Climate Change is not real. Hmmm.) Like most great travel writing, Chricton’s strength is to admit his personal struggles. (Nobody wants to read a travel writer who just has a ball and never struggles like a real traveler struggles.) Chricton may not be likable but he is relatable, which is key for me. But a number of these pieces are very brief and they get briefer as we get deeper into the other type of travel. If the book was just made up of this, or just made up of the medical section and this, I probably would have rated it fairly high, even though I would still prefer Paul Theroux.
But then we have the “inner travel.” Look, whatever works for you, which makes you more mentally/emotionally healthy, you should do. If believing psychics makes you healthier, then that’s fine. If “removing an entity” on the astral plain makes you healthier in the long-term, do it. That’s not the problem I have with Chricton’s discussion of his paranormal experiences. My problem is two fold. First of all, I always thought Chricton was a man of science. He has that reputation through his novels and for some public stances he’s taken – cough Climate Change cough – where he has presented himself as such. But, second, and more importantly, I have no problem with religious beliefs unless you tell me I need to accept the truth of your religious beliefs. Chricton starts out telling us these things have happened to him – that I would already have a hard time to accept – but by the end of the book is insisting this is all real and just not yet understood, rather than just saying “this is a thing that happened to me.” (There’s a postscript in my edition which is much more forceful than the rest of the book.) James Randi will pay you $1 million if you can prove this stuff is real but nobody has. That should be enough. I don’t understand why Chricton thought he could see auras or what have you, and if it made him feel better about himself, that’s fine, but don’t tell me this shit is real. It’s not. The reason it cannot be observed by scientists is not because it’s a form of creativity, it’s because it’s not in objective reality – whatever it is is completely subjective experience in your brain. (The postscript made me more mad, where Chricton goes on a tirade about scientism as if the existence of scientism – an ideology that only some scientists are really guilty of – is proof that the paranormal exists. It’s absurd.)
The “inner travels” stuff was endlessly frustrating for me due to both Chricton’s endless credulity -as if his subjective experience is a substitute for double blind testing – and his constant hedging about these experiences. Also, his final chapter about direct experience under-girds much of current political problems; yes, we should all try to have more experiences, but when you only trust your own personal experience, you reject the collective knowledge of humanity and that regularly leads you to insane beliefs, like the idea that a person can read your mind, that you can see an aura, or that a crowd of people which is clearly smaller than another crowd is actually bigger you were there.