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"The Sublime Engine," about the human heart

Becky Krystal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; 10:42 AM

THE SUBLIME ENGINE

A Biography of the Human Heart

By Stephen Amidon and Thomas Amidon

Rodale. 242 pp. $24.99

More than any other body part, the human heart has both baffled and awed generations of doctors, priests, poets and ordinary people. Not even the brain evokes such complex reactions, Stephen and Thomas Amidon argue in "The Sublime Engine."

Their chronicle of this vital, mysterious organ begins in ancient Egypt and ends in a futuristic 2021, intertwining literature, religion, medicine and a variety of other fields. Combining their professions as a novelist (Stephen) and cardiologist (Thomas), the brothers begin each chapter with a narrative that sets up a given era and its understanding of the heart: for example, a 17th-century young man with a hole in his chest that leaves the organ in full view, a 20th-century physician who performed the world's first cardiac catheterization on himself. Occasionally, the relationship between these vignettes and the chapter's main business is strained. More compelling are the passages that bring literature, including Shakespeare's plays, "Frankenstein" and "The Scarlet Letter," into the mix. The writers also manage the scientific threads of their story without any textbook-like dryness. Their documentation of scores of cardiac maladies, however, is enough to prompt anyone to check her own heart rate.

- Becky Krystal

krystalb@washpost.com

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