What’s That You’re Reading? A Five-Question Interview

“What’s that you’re reading?”

As a college student, I feel as though I am both asking and answering this question constantly. This question has floated across dorm rooms, across picked apart meals in dining halls, across tables in the libraries and cafes. When we ask this question, when we scan the bookshelves in a friend’s room or crane our necks to see the cover of what someone is reading, it displays a certain curiosity—this is no mystery. In the context of a college campus, though, when we ask this question, we’re not only seeking to know what our friends are reading, but we want to know what the inside of their classrooms look like. “What’s that you’re reading?” effectively means “what are you talking, thinking and writing about?” You may ask this to get a glimpse of a class you’re thinking of taking, or perhaps you just want to look inside the sphere of a field you’d never consider studying. Maybe you just like the cover.

In any case, I wanted to consider this question more carefully. More specifically, why do professors choose the books that then prompt these interactions. In this interview, I spoke with Peter Benson, an associate professor in anthropology, about a book he assigns for his Intro to Global Health course titled The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. The book, written by Anne Fadiman, chronicles the story of Lia Lee—a young girl from a Hmong immigrant family living in Merced, California. Lia suffers from severe epilepsy, and is treated by American doctors, but tension between Hmong culture and American medicine presents certain obstacles in her treatment process.

Why do you incorporate this book in particular into the curriculum?
The phrase “cultural competency” has become a key phrase in the health professions, although it’s a problematic concept because it’s frequently applied without careful understanding about what the concept of “culture” means. The model of “cultural competency” too often depicts “culture” as a static set of traits that can be taught to allow health professionals to treat patients from different backgrounds. Shouldn’t health professionals be trained around a more nuanced and critical approach to understanding differences and addressing disparities and inequalities? This book shows quite clearly and directly the importance of anthropology for thinking about and helping to remake medicine. The book is at its core about the role of anthropology as a means of providing insights into the complex workings of culture, power, and illness in a setting in which patients and families contend with various kinds of marginalization.

What do you hope students in your class take away when reading this book?
I hope that they take away that there aren’t any easy answers. This book poses a question of whether the soul or the life is more important, and while I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive, I do feel that there is a tension, an important tension. In treating biological life, Western biomedicine is oftentimes inattentive to the social and spiritual aspects of life.

How did you first hear about this book?
I first heard about this book because the physician and anthropologist Arthur Kleinman, who was my advisor in graduate school, is featured as a character in the book. In general, as a graduate student in the field of medical anthropology, you’re going to come across this book. It is simply a classic in the study of cultures of healing and an incisive examination of some of the problems with the culture of Western biomedicine. Additionally, it is a compelling, fun read, and Lia Lee is a sympathetic character.

Why should students who aren’t taking your class read this book?
I think anyone who is interested in medicine and the health fields should read this book. Essentially, anyone who wants to better understand how issues of cultural difference can intersect with the experience of illness and the provision of healthcare should read it.

If someone really likes this book or is interested in this topic, do you have any other recommendations?
I think people could take an anthropology class to consider the profound role of anthropological insights for the health professions and global health.