Iain Bamforth’s A Doctor’s Dictionary: Writings on Medicine and Culture is a collection of essays, written by a doctor-cum-poet, which at first seems to offer little in the way of enticement to the reader: it contains copious amounts of enumeration and, as a consequence, lengthy sentences that are interlaced with heavy but necessary levels of punctuation; furthermore, the title does not suggest a page-turner. Rather, A Doctor’s Dictionary is the antidote to the page-turner: it is a slow but highly enjoyable and stimulating read that is well deserving of the time you invest in it. It is slow because of the vastness of topics covered, and rewarding precisely because you cannot pat yourself on the shoulder because you were already aware of all the facts the book contains. This is underlined by a style that is best characterised as part facetious and part erudite. Much of Bamforth’s knowledge is of course derived from the medical field, but there is surprisingly little mention of this, especially considering the title of the collection. Most topics are in some way or another related to the medical profession, but for the most part doctoring plays the role of an unobtrusive Leitmotif. The advantage of this is that the reader does not feel overwhelmed, or indeed patronised, by the sheer amount of knowledge,. Rather, it incites further reading, thus making it a useful autodidactic tool.
Bamforth’s sense of humour is clever because it is delightfully subtle. For instance, the first joke is contained in the title: its acronym ADD is more commonly used to describe attention deficit disorder – an appropriate jibe that apostles of the post-Internet attention span are unlikely to appreciate. Other examples are clever puns, such as the chiasmic: “undertaker overtaken”, or grammatical, which is discernible by his use of punctuation in his essay on Kafka’s use of the semi-colon: “He used commas and periods; semi-colons were added only when the work was being prepared for publication.” Finally, there are odd(ly pleasing) expressions, such as in the essay “Language”: “agglutinating can become very starchy”.
The cultural aspects of the book range from mining to parasitic worms; from literature to -philosophy. The philosophical and literary aspects are predominantly Germanic: Nietzsche and Kafka in particular are two of Bamforth’s favourites. Some readers might object that the essays are largely Eurocentric, although one discusses the conditions of a Siberian penal colony just north of Japan. However, there is an eyesore in this affinity for German writers, as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany’s national poet, is for some reason rechristened “Wilhelm”. This is likely an editorial blunder, considering the name is rendered properly in other essays.
At times, the essays seem to lack a conclusive point, but their meandering character is not detrimental because there is a fine balance between existentialist questions and hard facts. It also helps that A Doctor’s Dictionary is both witty and beautifully crafted. The only potential concern as far as writing technique is concerned is Bamforth’s control of pace. The pace of individual sentences and paragraphs is admirably controlled, but there is a sense that a couple of the later essays tend to drag somewhat. Of course, it is possible that this is a symptom of trying to read the entire book at once. Even without an impaired attention span, it is not easy to fully concentrate on – and, consequentially, appreciate – the finer aspects of each essay precisely because they are erudite. The collection is certainly intellectually stimulating, but there is such a thing as learning too much in too little time. As such, it might be more appropriate to pay attention to one’s reading pace rather than the collection’s written pace, which is easily done since the essays are chronologically and topically independent of one another. This will likely help readers appreciate the essays’ flair: human analyses that are smart but not overpowering, and humour as dry as Triple Sec. In the end, Bamforth’s diagnosis reads: human, all too human.