10/23/2014 06:12 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

Doctor's Dilemma: Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole

Famed and multi-awarded neurologist Dr. Allan Ropper, author of the definitive textbook on clinical neurology, with the help of Brian David Burrell, has turned his prodigious medical knowledge to us, the people, with an entertaining and eminently readable book, Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole. Demystifying the art and practice of healing neurological disorders, he turns a keen eye on his patients, interviewing them and recounting stories straight from the hospital front. As the doctor told me in a recent interview, almost all of the many anecdotes contained in the book are taken from his owned taped interviews, and are 70 percent verbatim.

Why did you write the book?

What I do as a neurologist pertains to people with brain disorders. I believe their story is the only way to tell it. Over the years I've retained tape recordings of many interactions, and with my cowriter, I made more in real time. Certain stories speak for themselves. Illness exposes a part of human nature that isn't apparent in other circumstances. But people whose illness involves the organ of self offer special insight. In the craft of neurology, you have to query the entity that is sick and is the only source of information. It becomes a tricky business. You have to learn to talk to somebody else's brain. Those stories were unique and had this Alice in Wonderland quality. I wrote the book because I thought neurology was special.

But aren't there so many doctor books now? Why yet another?

Yes, it's a trope now. I read all the Oliver Sachs. His ideas about brain problems are highly abstracted and romanticized. Real illness is raw and proximate and not romantic at all. And that's the human condition part of it that has not been written about very well except in fiction: Mann's The Magic Mountain, Sinclair Lewis; William Carlos Williams wrote poetry and narratives. I thought, can I do that, write about illness without inserting myself too much? I see people every day whose internal stream of thought is wrecked. How do you help them? How do you go down and get them out of the hole? For the most part, you don't but the experience I thought might be interesting. This is not for physicians but for people who like fiction. Writing narrative non-fiction, I did not want to write them verbatim. I did not want to pontificate. I wanted to set the stage and let the patients speak for themselves. I thought there might be an experience there that somebody who likes fiction would like.

Brian David Burrell is a mathematician at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I met him because I admired his book, Postcards from the Brain Museum. He traveled around the world, looked at pathology collections, and focusing on the preservation of the brains of famous people, he wrote a travelogue and social scientist history on the idea that the individual is embodied in the brain starting with classic antiquity. People think there is something unique about Einstein's brain, an anatomical quirk, and want to assign tremendous importance to that. So his book has a little bit of satire in the background. I asked him to work with me. He was not interested but came to the hospital for one day, and said, "Not only is there a book here, it is clear you have a story you want to tell. I will help you."

The book turns out to be surprisingly funny. Where does your sense of humor come from?

Sitting around kitchen table drinking Slivovitch. Jokes and stories stick to my mind like fly paper. As I've gotten older I have had to learn to monitor myself to not say inappropriate things. I have very robust memories. There was a guy named Moshe Zamel who was a caricature of a Jew in New York, but he was an incredible joke teller. He told this joke: in heaven there are two lines: one for men who dominated their wives, the other for men who were dominated by their wives. In the second line there are millions of men. In the other there are short, fat, Jewish men with thick glasses. And that was Moshe Zamel. An Italian man comes over and says, "You mean to tell me you dominated your wife!"

"Well, to tell you the truth, she told me to stand here."

Is there anything you wish I would ask?

That's a very good question. Do you know what the Buddhist said to the hotdog vendor? Make me one with everything.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.