Synopses & Reviews
Afflicting nearly half of all persons over the age of 85, Alzheimers disease kills nearly 100,000 Americas a year as it insidiously robs them of their memory and wreaks havoc on the lives of their loved ones. It was once minimized and misunderstood as forgetfulness in the elderly, but Alzheimers is now at the forefront of many medical and scientific agendas, for as the worlds population ages, the disease will kill millions more and touch the lives of virtually everyone.
The Forgetting is a scrupulously researched, multilayered analysis of Alzheimers and its social, medical, and spiritual implications. David Shenk presents us with much more than a detailed explanation of its causes and effects and the search for a cure. He movingly captures the diseases impact on its victims and their families, and he looks back through history, explaining how Alzheimers most likely afflicted such figures as Jonathan Swift, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William de Kooning. The result is a searing, powerfully engaging account of Alzheimers disease, offering a grim but sympathetic and ultimately encouraging portrait.
"A remarkable addition to the literature of the science of the mind....Shenk has drawn together threads of neurobiology, art history, and psychology into a literary portrait of Alzheimers disease perfectly balanced between sorrow and wonder, devastation and awe." Los Angeles Times Book Review
"An elegant new book....Shenk rises above the usual rhetoric of combat and cure, enabling us to confront Alzheimer's not as an alien pestilence but as part of the human condition." Newsweek
"Written with a researchers attention to detail and a storytellers ear." The New York Times Book Review
"An excellent new book." The New Yorker
"Beautifully written and philosophically minded." Time Out New York
"Told plainly and movingly....Anyone appalled by the possibility of losing their mind, or who has watched anothers being stolen by Alzheimers, should read this excellent book: I guess thats all of us." New Scientist
"Highly recommended." Journal of the American Medical Association
"The definitive work on Alzheimers. A truly remarkable book." John Bayley, author of Elegy for Iris
Includes bibliographical references (p. 269-284) and index.
About the Author
David Shenk is the author of three previous books, including Data Smog, which The New York Times hailed as an “indispensable guide to the big picture of technologys cultural impact.” A former fellow at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University, he has written for Harpers, Wired, Salon, The New Republic, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker, and is an occasional commentator for NPRs All Things Considered. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and daughter.
Reading Group Guide
1. What is the difference between a healthy brain and a sick one?
2. What comparisons might be made between early childhood development and Alzheimers?
3. By what processes—historic, scientific, semantic, cultural—have certain forms of dementia come to be known as Alzheimers?
4. By holding the story of Ralph Waldo Emersons mental decline in a light cast by the story of the molecular biology communitys efforts to combat Alzheimers, Shenks prologue illustrates the principal juxtaposition that frames The Forgetting. And by including in that prologue not only an excerpt from Emersons poem “Brahma” but a reference to the Barbara Walters/Monica Lewinsky interview that coincided with the keynote address of the Molecular Mechanisms in Alzheimers Disease conference, Shenk prepares his reader for the broad scope of the rest of his book, a book as likely to quote from Plato or Shakespeare as to refer to The New England Journal of Medicine and gaze at William de Koonings paintings. Why do you suppose Shenk elected to work with such a broad canvas?
5. Plato "insisted that those suffering from 'the influence of extreme old age' should be excused from the commission of the crimes of sacrilege, treachery, and treason." Keeping in mind that Plato was talking about people suffering the influence of old age, but keeping in mind as well that the onset of Alzheimer's is gradual and often undiagnosed, do you feel that old age alone should be a mitigating factor in any other crimes? Would you take this a step further and argue that society should make a legal distinction for elderly people, jut as it does for juveniles?
6. "We are the sum of our memories. Everything we know, everything we perceive, every movement we make is shaped by them." Despite the truth of Shenk's statement, most people go through their daily lives entirely unmindful, if not unaware, of the role played by memory in their behavior. Try to articulate the ways in which your memories have made you what and who you are.
7. Short of medical treatment, what options would you like to see available for people who learn that they have early Alzheimer's? How would you plan for your future and the future of you family if you were to become one of those people?
8. Shenk writes of Alzheimer's patients and their families struggling to create meaning out of their loss. Do you think that such meaning exists? Do you, too, desire to find meaning in suffering?
9. Should the government continue to allow Alzheimer's patients to give away all assets to their children in order to qualify for government-sponsored care?
10. Nonfiction books can be as suspenseful as novels. Discuss the ways in which Shenk achieves suspense in The Forgetting.
11. Are you encouraged or discouraged by the advances that have been made in our understanding of Alzheimer's over the past century?
12. Many of us are caregivers to Alzheimer's patients. Discuss Shenk's proposal that "the caregiver's challenge is to escape the medical confines of disease and to assemble a new humanity."
"Riveting. . . . Superb. . . . A must-read for anyone interested in the wretched ailment that is Alzheimer's Disease." —San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
The introduction, discussion questions, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of David Shenk's The Forgetting—an engaging account of the disease that afflicts nearly half of all persons over the age of eighty-five, robbing its victims and devastating their loved ones.