Review of Blood: The Stuff of Life by

Book cover for Blood: The Stuff of Life

The human body is weird. I mean, it’s a wonder we function at all. We’re fragile bags of mostly water that support a strange and wonderful organ that seems to give us consciousness. All this happens through a complex set of interconnected systems that work to keep us alive. I’m really not down with the ickiness of my biology: bring on the robot bodies! Until that happens, though, I’m forced to agree with Lawrence Hill: Blood really is The Stuff of Life. Furthermore, how we treat blood and how, historically, our understanding of blood has led us to treat others, is a fascinating and important topic to consider.

I’m seeing a lot of reviews of this book that express dissatisfaction with the lack of scientific information and the excess of anecdotes from Hill’s life. And, fair enough: if that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for, you will be disappointed. Although Hill gives a basic précis of how blood breaks down and when we learned all this, Blood is more about culture and history than it is about science—the science, when it’s there, is to illuminate the historical attitudes, rather than the other way around. Being disappointed with this is a totally legitimate attitude, but I think it’s a little disingenuous when the book never bills itself as popular science. My copy, at least, claims to be “a bold meditation on blood as an historical and contemporary marker of identity, belonging, gender, race, class, citizenship, athletic superiority, and nationhood” (woo, Oxford comma!). Laundry list aside, there’s no claim to scientific discourse here. Let’s not ignore the impulse of the Massey Lectures either, which is to discuss a topic as it relates to culture and philosophy. The whole point of this exercise is for Hill to remove blood from beneath the microscope and look at how it has affected our societies.

One point Hill wants to hammer home is that despite differences in blood types, all our blood is the same. That is, no one has ever managed to use blood to successfully replicate the cultural constructs of race and ethnicity. He examines the futility of trying to establish ancestry and descent through blood quanta. Your skin might be lighter or darker than other people; you might have hair that coils or curls or waves or stay straight; but as long as your blood types are compatible, you can share blood regardless of these surface-level characteristics. Hill reminds us that the idea we can neatly compartmentalize humans into categories like “race” is only that—an idea, promoted and perpetuated throughout the centuries whenever it is a convenient way for people in power to oppress others.

Obviously, Hill’s identity as a black man contributes heavily to this discussion, as does his identity as the child of Americans who immigrated. But he also talks about other ways in which blood has been used to oppress, separate, or otherwise distinguish people into less- and more-deserving groups. In particular, he mentions the ongoing struggle Aboriginal peoples of Canada have even in being recognized as being Aboriginal. Blood, blood quantum, and the idea that who one marries can affect whether your children are members of a certain group all contribute to allowing or denying access to certain privileges. This is a pattern of behaviour that has gone on for millennia and continues to this very day—but it has no basis in fact.

In this way, blood is one of the properties by which we determine what is human. Hill examines this from another angle when he discusses blood-doping and other steroid usage. As an amateur runner who gave up his athletic aspirations for literary ones, Hill knows a lot about the mechanics of running and the obstacles athletes face to run faster and longer. Blood plays an immensely important role in this. I never followed the blood-doping scandal when it was in the news—sports is of little interest to me. The transhumanist aspect of steroid use, however, is fascinating. Hill teases out the difficult ethical quandaries surrounding these issues, speculates how we will deal with more and more innovative ways of enhancing athletes.

Blood is definitely thoughtful and moving. It is somewhat repetitive. Though Hill promises a careful division of topics into the five chapters/five lectures of the series, he revisits the same ideas—albeit from slightly different angles. Each chapters, as a result, has some high points mixed among a lot of, “Didn’t I already read this?” Though the book never goes so far as to be boring, it is not as insightful as its length might suggest.

It’s just a coincidence that I read this just as the adaptation of Hill’s The Book of Negroes premieres on CBC. Hill’s choice of subject for the Massey Lectures was certainly apt: his writing is often about blood and the effect it has on our lives. I haven’t actually read The Book of Negroes yet, but even from his non-fiction writing I can tell that Hill is a talented and thorough author. If the subject interests you, then Blood will be satisfying guide through the cultural baggage that courses through our veins and arteries. If you’re looking for a popular science book, though, you should continue your search elsewhere.

Engagement

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