Offering a cultural history of prion diseases
This article is from 2007.
Three things compelled DT Max to set about writing The Family that Couldn’t Sleep. Firstly, as a science writer for the New Yorker and New York Times, he had an interest in prions, the rogue proteins behind mad cow disease. The second was personal: he has a degenerative condition caused by the failure of his body’s proteins to fold properly. The third was the remarkable story of a condition that affects an extended Venetian family whose members, at a certain age, become incapable of sleep and, within a year, die of insomnia.
‘The book is a cultural and scientific history of prion diseases,’ says Max. ‘It’s also a highly empathetic look at the lives of a single Italian family afflicted with an unimaginably dreadful disease. One of the goals is to show how resilient we all are: even when you’re dealt the worst hand imaginable, you manage to live a fairly full life.’ Many readers have warmed to the book’s perspective on death, others to its investigation of sleep. ‘We know so little about sleep,’ he says. ‘It’s as if we just wrote off eight hours a day as being too burdensome to explore.’ (Mark Fisher)
Recommended reading: Best American Science Writing 2006 features his essay on ‘literary Darwinism’.
26 Aug, 11am, £7 (£5).