Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Biography of R.S.

Consider the lowly head lice.

Besides being an increasing irritant in the life of any mother with elementary age children in a public school, they are almost indistinguishable from body lice.

Hans Zinsser recognized body lice as the scourge of armies, and as the chief trasmitter of typhus. In fact, he spent his entire life studying bacteria and transmission of disease.

After developing the first anti-typhus vaccine in 1933, he authored Rats, Lice and History, still in print, and still readable (including a word with the following footnote: "If the reader does not know the meaning of this word, that is unfortunate." An educator after my own heart.)

Zinsser wrote for the Atlantic Monthly, played the fiddle, traveled the world, and eventually, while examing his own blood under a microscope, identified and diagnosed himself with chronic leukemia. Knowing his time was limited, he wrote his own autobiography in the third person: As I Remember Him: The Biography of R.S.

"An affectionate, voluble, energetic, terrierlike man, Hans Zinsser had a strong fondness for wine, women, horses, books. Two years ago, returning from a junket to China, he noticed that the sun on ship board turned him not healthy brown but lemon yellow. He knew then that there was something serious the matter with his blood. Back in Boston, he consulted a colleague and friend, who told him, with "affectionate abstinence from any expression of sympathy," that he had leukemia. Looking out at the white sails on the Charles River, Zinsser realized that he was going to die. A great lover of life, he began soon to fall in love with death.

"In his book Zinsser revealed that he was an agnostic, that he did not know what lay beyond the last door. But he said that the imminence of death had made his perceptions keener and lovelier. "When he awoke in the mornings," he wrote of himself, "the early sun striking across the bed, the light on the branches of the trees outside his window, the noise of his sparrows, and all the sounds of the awakening street aroused in him all kinds of gentle and pleasing memories of days long past. . . " *

The "R.S." was short for Romantic Self, a self-description by Zinsser himself.

As of 8-15-09, offered for sale by Chewybooks at:

*Time Magazine, Romantic Self, Monday, September 16,1940 (obituary for Hans Zinsser)

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