From the very first time that someone slaps a Band-Aid on a knee we’ve skinned or a finger we’ve nicked, we become conscious of blood.
Most of us limit that interest to wondering about the workings of our arteries, veins and capillaries while trying to avoid having actually to see the stuff.
Bill Hayes, though, is different. The former Spokane resident, who lives and works in San Francisco, has immersed himself – so to speak – in the thick liquid that physicians once believed carried what they called the “vital spirit.”
Author of three works of nonfiction, each a study of some function of human biology, Hayes made blood the center of his 2005 book “Five Quarts: A Personal and Natural History of Blood.”
And that is the book we’ve chosen as the April read of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.
If Hayes’ name sounds familiar, then you’re probably a regular visitor at Auntie’s Bookstore’s longtime reading series. Hayes read from his latest book, “The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy,” at Auntie’s on Feb. 12.
His appearance was a homecoming. Born in Minnesota, Hayes was raised in Spokane. He attended elementary and middle school at Cataldo, graduated from Gonzaga Prep in 1979 and then left to attend the University of Santa Clara.
In an interview prior to his Feb. 12 visit, Hayes said that he’d always been interested in writing. But he didn’t start freelancing professionally until the 1990s.
His first book, “Sleep Demons: An Insomniac’s Memoir,” he said, “grew out of a short personal essay that I wrote about being an insomniac.”
It was “with that book,” Hayes said, that he decided “to combine memoir with the history of sleep science. And that’s really where this style started of mixing medical history with memoir.”
So while “Five Quarts” is about blood – “it’s looking at the history of blood,” he said, “blood in culture, history, literature and mythology” – it’s far more than a mere pop-science primer.
At the heart of the book is Hayes’ relationship with Steve, his – as of the book’s writing – “partner of 14 years,” and Steve’s ongoing struggle with AIDS. (He would pass away in 2006.)
Even as Hayes tells us that blood is an inherent part of all humans, he points out that many of us have mixed feelings about it.
“We’re born in blood,” he writes. “Our family histories are contained in it, our bodies nourished by it daily. Five quarts run through each of us, on average, along some 60,000 miles of arteries, veins and capillaries.”
Not only that, Hayes adds, it “permeates religion, as it does the nightly news. Action films are bathed in it. Love songs and poems testify to its thunder.”
And yet, he writes, “mere mention of blood can induce a cringe.” And that’s particularly so if, as was the case with Steve, something is wrong with it.
“Five Quarts” is filled with historical figures, such as the irritatingly self-confident Greek physician Galen, whose observations, made two centuries after the birth of Christ, were – though in many cases wrong-headed – considered the final word for the next 1,400 years.
There are also the amateur microbiologist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and Nobel Prize-winning researcher Paul Erlich, each of whom helped advance our understanding of blood.
Hayes tells the story of blood fiends, too, from Bram Stoker’s virtual invention of the vampire tale to a Bay Area lab worker whose sloppy – perhaps intentionally so – work processing blood samples exposed a number of people to HIV and hepatitis C.
And he adds tales of the victims, from the royals who suffered from the hemophilia that was passed on though Britain’s Queen Victoria to those, such as Steve, who contracted the HIV that had killed so ruthlessly before scientists discovered the life-saving drug cocktails of recent years.
A reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote of Hayes: “His keen perceptions show how the ancient view of blood as the essence of a person’s soul still pervades our modern vocabulary and views on the vital fluid. … With his strong writing and a unique approach, Hayes satisfyingly addresses this life force.”
A reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle agreed, writing that “Hayes is on his way to becoming one of those rare authors who can tackle just about any subject in book form, and make you glad he did.”
“Five Quarts,” he added, is “a breezy ride of a book that … equips even a casual reader with the knowledge to gain new insights into life.”
Here’s one such insight: In explaining how, “in a body at rest, a single blood cell completes a full circuit of the circulatory system in just about 30 seconds,” Hayes writes that, during the last stages of the circuit, the cell is traveling at half speed.
“In other words,” he writes, “the second half of the trip is more arduous than the first, which I suppose could be said of life as well.”
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