July 19, 2012


The Book of Blood: From Legends and Leeches to Vampires and Veins. By H.P. Newquist. Houghton Mifflin. $17.99.

      H.P. Newquist starts his explanation about the truths, myths and legends of blood in a decidedly odd way – with a statement that “the sight of blood from a wound causes many people to feel faint,” as the caption of a picture showing a person’s injured hand literally dripping blood.  Great way to frighten off some readers!  But those who are not scared by this peculiar beginning, or can overcome the queasiness it may cause, are in for a well-written overview of blood of all sorts, amply illustrated with photos, drawings, diagrams, movie stills and more.

      Newquist asks, “What does blood actually do?”  And he comments that “we’re fortunate to be living in an age where we can answer that question.”  Thus begins a short survey of old ideas about blood, ancient immortals involved with it (including the Mesopotamian Lamashtu, who sucked blood from mothers and their newborns, and the Hindu Kali, who defeated her enemies and then drank their blood).  Mummies, statues, stained-glass windows and other illustrations show the importance of blood in many traditions.  Illustrations of the personality types believed to be represented by the body’s “four humors” – one of which was blood – are especially intriguing.  Then Newquist moves on to consider bloodletting (the practice of removing blood from the body to try to “bleed out” an illness), and along the way explains that in addition to scientists who are well-known today, there were others whose important discoveries are almost unremembered: Michael Servetus, for example, who in the 16th century became the first European to figure out how blood flowed in the body – and Ibn al-Nafis, who made the same discovery three centuries earlier, in Egypt.  Early blood transfusion, the development of the microscope, blood typing and other matters lead to a simplified but very well-done explanation of how the body makes blood, where it flows and how it is used by specific organs.  Then Newquist discusses wounds and diseases and how the body heals itself – including a description of the five primary types of white blood cells and what functions each has.  Illustrations of blood components are intermingled with some photos that, like that first one of the wounded hand, may not be for everyone, such as a picture of the opened skull of a person with meningitis – showing how that disease lets blood and bacteria enter the brain.

      Three-quarters of The Book of Blood focuses on human blood and human discoveries, but in some ways the remaining one-quarter of the book is even more fascinating.  Here Newquist explores blood in other creatures, revealing some truly amazing facts.  He points out, for example, that reptiles are not truly “cold-blooded” but that one creature is: the astonishing icefish, the only known vertebrate with no hemoglobin – it has clear blood that functions as antifreeze in the frigid waters near Antarctica, where the fish lives.  Having explained that even aristocratic humans do not really have “blue blood,” although ours looks blue when it is deoxygenated, he talks about animals whose blood really is blue, such as squids, octopi and slugs.  And then there is the blue-blooded horseshoe crab, an ancient and remarkable creature with an open circulatory system: its blood sloshes around in its body instead of traveling through blood vessels (cockroaches also have open systems, which is why they can live for days after their heads are cut off; Newquist explains this, too).  Horseshoe-crab blood is incredibly important to humans, because it is hypersensitive to bacteria – to such a degree that it is used to test the purity of medicines and the sterility of surgical instruments.  A picture of a lab in which medical technicians are carefully extracting blood from row upon row of horseshoe crabs is one of the most remarkable in the book.

      Near the end of The Book of Blood, Newquist considers bloodsuckers, both real (mosquitoes, bedbugs, vampire bats, leeches) and fictional (vampires), and he delves briefly into the real-life background of some bloodsucking fiction (including the stories of Transylvanian ruler Vlad the Impaler and Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory).  But he is careful not to make this the book’s conclusion: that is a discussion of blood transfusions, which are needed because humans still cannot make blood in the lab – only in their own bodies.  By the end of this book, young readers will have a much better understanding and, hopefully, appreciation of blood, and perhaps less fear of seeing it – although the book’s layout, with pages that look as if they have blood all over them, seems to be designed to increase the grossness factor as much as the text is aimed at reducing it.  Design issues aside, The Book of Blood is highly informative and is likely to encourage at least some readers to explore the subject further – starting with some of the books and Web sites listed at the end.

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