Books interview: Susan Greenfield

The neuroscientist, broadcaster and author of A Day in the Life of the Brain holds forth on pony tales, Giuseppe di Lampedusa's Leopard, Thucydides and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

September 29, 2016
Author Baroness Susan Greenfield, Lincoln College, University of Oxford
Source: John Lawrence

What sort of books inspired you as a child?
When I was very little, I confess that I was mad on ponies. There was a famous horse-rider called Pat Smythe who wrote a lot of books about some kids called the Three Jays and their ponies – I devoured those. Then I went on to Rosemary Sutcliff’s books such as The Eagle of the Ninth, which are set in pre-Roman Britain or about the Roman invasion of Britain. They really inspired me a lot in terms of values, what was important, keeping faith with people, the notion of tribes and belonging and identity.

In your latest book, A Day in the Life of the Brain, you talk about how you sought answers to ‘the big questions’ in ‘literature and history’ before you turned to science. What sort of books did you have in mind?
One is The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. It is set in Sicily about 1860, and the theme is that things have to change in order to remain the same. An Italian nobleman has to embrace change in the shape of marrying his nephew to a nouveau riche woman, so it touches on the clashes of class and culture at that time. But it’s much greater than that – it’s about life and death and meaning. The author was actually dying when he wrote the book, but he writes about death in such a positive way. The other novel that comes to mind is A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. That’s a much more sweeping saga, where the supernatural shades into the natural with no problem whatever – there are lots of yellow butterflies in the bathroom when someone is in love. As for history, I studied Classics before I became a scientist and was fascinated by Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and its contrast between Athenian culture and the much cruder Spartan one.

Which novels or poems are best at capturing our constantly shifting conscious subjectivity that you also study as a neuroscientist?
I think poetry lends itself much more easily than fiction to capturing that, through short, staccato images. I thought of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot and phrases such as “Do I dare/Disturb the universe?” or “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” Those things are said so succinctly and so well. The other poem that came to mind at the time of the referendum on the European Union was W. B. Yeats’ The Second Coming, where “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” That sums up the Brexit debate!

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
This is a wonderful opportunity for a plug, but it’s true. My mum, Dorice Greenfield, is 89 and published a book last year called War Time, Peace Time, My Time. It’s a life in the middle of the 20th century, with conflicts of class and religion and so on, and I gave it to someone I stayed with in Aspen.

What books are on your desk waiting to be read?
Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia, which I bought at Edinburgh airport last week. It’s set in the 1840s and that fits with my love of history.

Baroness Susan Greenfield is senior research fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford. Her latest book is A Day in the Life of the Brain: The Neuroscience of Consciousness from Dawn Till Dusk (Allen Lane).

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