On the Beat

The Best Books on the Heart

Whether it’s a beating muscle or one more metaphorical, the heart finds its way into poetry, fiction, medical writing, adventure stories, and even, gulp, recipe books.

On Valentine’s Day we draw hearts, extend our hearts, give heartfelt thanks, suffer our broken hearts, and heart each other. Each of these actions pulls the strings of our hearts, the real ones, the muscles inside us whose beats keep us among the living. What better way to honor the complex beats of literal and figurative hearts in the month of February than to read a few good books. Here are some great ones.

1) One could do worse, in considering the heart, than Pablo Neruda whose book of poems, The Yellow Heart (Copper Canyon Press), like nearly everything Neruda touched, deals with love and longing.

2) In the bestselling The Heart of the Sea (Penguin Books) by Nathanial Philbrick, we see the story of the whaling ship Essex, damaged by an encounter with a sperm whale. The heart here is the sea’s depth, a realm in which souls are consumed and congealed.

3) In The Heart of Darkness (Blackwood’s Magazine 1899), Joseph Conrad tells the story of an ivory transporter and his journeys through racism, colonialism, and the headwaters of a great snakelike river, the Congo, its tail tangled somewhere among the roots of trees and the most awful acts of man.

4) In William Harvey, A Life in Circulation (Oxford University Press, 2013), Thomas Wright tells the untold story of the man who figured out circulation. Until Harvey, no one could quite make sense of the heart and cardiovascular system, which way blood moved, what moved it and to what end it served. Harvey more than anyone made sense of how and why our heart and, with it, our bodies more generally, works.

5) In The Super-Doctors (Playboy Press, 1959) Roger Rapoport tells the story of the great doctors of the last century, including a few of those who fought to mend the heart. Here you meet the rogues, heroes, and unusual geniuses who helped to figure out how to keep someone, someone like you, alive.

6) The first attempts to mend the congenitally deformed hearts of children depended on the doctors Helen Taussig and Alfred Blalock, but also a third person, Vivian Thomas. Vivian Thomas was the African American assistant to Dr. Alfred Blalock. It was Thomas’s amazing (and initially unheralded) surgical skills that helped to transform the fate of children born with congenital deformities. In Partners of the Heart (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), Thomas tells his own amazing story.

7) And because sometimes you just have to eat your heart out, or if not yours, that of your cow, read about eating hearts. Steven Vogel’s Vital Circuits (Oxford University Press, 1992) tells the story of the heart and cardiovascular system, then also provides a detailed recipe for cooking the heart and enjoying its well marinated muscle in light of its complex biology. Vogel teaches the reader how to, as he puts it, “cook with heart,” which may be just what is in order this time of year, some heart for your heart on Valentine’s day, a fork full of muscle and soul.

Rob Dunn, associate professor of Ecology and Evolution in the Department of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University, is the author of The Wild Life of Our Bodies and Every Living Thing. His most recent book is The Man Who Touched His Own Heart, a history of the human heart and the physicians, scientists, and researchers whose discoveries shaped modern medicine.