"The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing" says Alistair Cooke, quoting an ancient Greek poet. The fox calls upon "a vast variety of experiences and objects" without necessarily linking them, while the hedgehog uses fewer experiences but integrates them into "a single central vision." One of many provocative quotations collected by Cooke in his newest book, it also serves unintentionally as a one-line book review.
Since arriving in America from England in 1933, Alistair Cooke has pursued, in his own words, "a peculiar specialty of my own, which is continuous observation of what is British about Britain and American about America." He has done this as a reporter broadcasting regularly on BBC radio and hosting "Masterpiece Theatre" on American public television. Over the years he has written 10 books and edited two others on various aspects of American and British life. As a human mirror whose reflective surfaces have survived for more than half a century, Cooke deserves an award for endurance alone.
"The Patient Has the Floor" is a collection of 14 lectures Cooke gave between 1965 and 1983. They cover a broad array of subjects but, despite the book's title, only five have anything to do with medicine. Even these range over subjects as varied as hypochondriasis, the image of surgeons and Revolutionary War medicine. The remaining nine traverse terrain from Shakespeare's genius to the new federalism to American views of the English, the influence of television on language and the effects of billboards and telephone wires on the landscape. The audiences for Cooke's lectures were as varied as the subjects and included the British Medical Association, the Philadelphia Bar Association, the U.S. State Department, Cambridge University, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the First World Shakespeare Congress.
For aficionados of Alistair Cooke the book will be satisfying. It is full of erudition and witticisms, a Cooke-book of recipes by a wordsmith who has practiced his trade over five decades -- for example: "Practically every man who signed the Declaration of Independence is at this moment being measured for a halo or, at worst, a T-shirt." He is a collector of insightful quotations, carefully arranging Tom Wolfe, Shakespeare and Greek poets and serving them up at precisely the correct time. Alistair Cooke also appeals to the layman in each of us who enjoys the fantasy of telling specialists what is wrong with their professions; thus, he says he will "accept only invitations from learned bodies about whose specialty we laymen on the outside have firm and quirky convictions they may be unaware of."
For others "The Patient Has the Floor" will not be as satisfying. Lectures, for one thing, are written to be heard and rarely read as well as essays. Moreover, Cooke provides no index, notes or references, so it is impossible to identify the source of his many interesting quotations. In the introduction he informs the reader that all lectures except one were reprinted "in the appropriate journals, together with footnotes indicating sources, which professionals should readily track down, but which, I believe, would only distract and irritate the general reader." It would seem to be a minimal courtesy to provide the name of the journal where the lecture was reprinted, and one could argue that no "general reader" had ever been distracted or irritated by a notes section in the back of the book.
There is also a fine line in literature between the display of erudition and pomposity. Such a line is in the eye of the beholder, but for me Cooke crosses it. Thus I found myself wondering if the single quotation that he used twice did not signify some unconscious meaning: "It's likely that you can no more cure a naturally pompous person than you can reflower a virgin."
More seriously, however, the book is short on substance and fails to satisfy as hors d'oeuvre fail to substitute for a meal; no matter how tasty and appealing each individual morsel may be, you still feel hungry when you are finished. One tires of the fox jumping from subject to subject, and begins to look around for the hedgehog. It is not to be found in this book.