F. Gonzalez-Crussi is really more than the anatomist of his book's title: he is a pathologist -- both academic and practicing -- a physician who ferrets out the causes of disease. This means he generally concerns himself with bodies when they are corpses. Even so, "Notes of an Anatomist," his first collection of essays, is a book of much wit, learning and melancholy (in that word's secondary sense of pensiveness), but no morbidity. Gonzalez-Crussi regularly confronts death and decay, but never wallows in them.

Indeed, one of his pieces, "The Dead as a Living," defends pathologists against the stereotype of being cold-hearted clinicians. He turns the argument on its head by asserting that pathologists are unique in their "interest in the dead as dead persons, rather than abstractions," that their search for the cause of death in pursuit of medical and legal enlightenment "teaches the double lesson of individuality and commonality in human beings."

His approach to a topic is eclectic. He is fond of historical asides, as in "Reflections on Child Abuse," which features Beethoven biting recalcitrant music pupils. He is equally at home with contemporary culture. An essay on teratology, the study of monstrosities, links an Italian tradition of interest in deformed persons (the flip side of the Renaissance preoccupation with human beauty) to "the hauntingly ugly faces that appear on the screen in the motion pictures directed by Federico Fellini." He is skilled wielder of literary references. The child-abuse piece concludes with the observation that the ideal autopsy report on an abused child would delve so deeply into family history that it would resemble those stories-within-stories in "Don Quixote."

A piece on twins leads the reader into the arcana of Catholic controversy. Should a dying pair of conjoined twins be given the last rites jointly or severally? One would think that it makes no difference, that one anointing could surely cover two multitudes of sins. But the church used to take such matters most gravely. In one case an autopsy showed that the liver was the only organ the twins shared. Since, as Gonzalez-Crussi wryly observes, "the liver was never seriously thought in theological circles to be the site of residence of the soul," the hindsighted verdict was in favor of dual rites.

An essay on ways of considering the body finds the author in a less legalistic, more speculative mode. He zeroes in on the philosophical tendency to separate the body into an elevated upper half and a more or less contemptible lower half. The observation leads to a meditation on El Greco, who elongated his human figures until they can be seen straining to escape the pulls of gravity and "base" desires.

One of Gonzalez-Crussi's few pieces on anatomy proper concerns the male organ. His approach is typically discursive. Concerning the "all-pervading influence that psychologists and psychiatrists allow sex ," he remarks that "there is no escaping from it." He notes that the suppression of frank talk about matters sexual in the West from the 16th century until recently did not correspond with diminished curiosity. Rather, the desire to know about sex "was increased to pathological extremes, but it was now necessary to examine the object of preoccupation by indirect light and by the method of derivative, oblique observation."

Occasionally, Gonzalez-Crussi's erudition seems forced, as when he quotes, in Italian, from a 15th-century poet named Boiardo. And his style bogs down now and then in archaisms like "anent" and "kept in durance." Nevertheless, his essays are so informed and the topics so offbeat that one hopes these "Notes" will grow into a healthy and long-lived body of work.