“Remember—Don’t Drill a Hole in Your Head”: A Review of The Sawbones Book
The Sawbones Book: The Horrifying, Hilarious Road to Modern Medicine is an adaptation of a Maximum Fun Network podcast, Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine. I reviewed the podcast for my own blog back in 2014, so I’ll keep the synopsis here short: Justin McElroy and Dr. Sydnee McElroy are married. She’s a doctor. He’s an idiot. Together, they tell listeners stories about all the ridiculous ways humans have tried (and mostly failed) to heal each other throughout history.
Sydnee is a family physician and an assistant professor of medical education. When not serving as comedic foil, Justin is a journalist who — before venturing into podcasting — was best recognized for co-founding Vox Media’s gaming blog, Joystiq. Justin and Sydnee both have other podcasts, all of which are co-hosted with members of their respective families, the McElroys and the Smirls.
NBC Universal’s Seeso network adapted Justin’s first family podcasting venture, My Brother, My Brother and Me, into a TV series, and the first in a series of graphic novel adaptations of The Adventure Zone (his family’s D&D podcast) recently took the top spot on the New York Times Bestseller List. This background is important for understanding how this book came to be: fans of the McElroy podcasts, graphic novels, and television show serve as a ready-made audience for a mass-market book that might otherwise be a risky proposition.
While my interest in the topic obviously predates the podcast, I should be clear that I am not a neutral reviewer. I have been listening to Sawbones since it premiered in 2013. While I am a less frequent listener post-PhD, I am no less a fan, and I feel a great deal of affection for the show, its hosts, and the broader McElroy family of products. For this reason, I’m going to take an unconventional approach to this review: I’m starting with the critique.
My review copy of this book came from the second printing, which I know because the first printing was so bad — bad as in, the printer ripped five pages out when they realized they weren’t supposed to appear in the book — that the publisher, Weldon Owen, had to apologize. The second printing doesn’t suffer from that particular issue, but several indictments of the publisher remain. The Table of Contents is mostly inaccurate, and there are lots of typos throughout the text, the sort of things weary authors should be forgiven for missing (“see page XXX for more,”) but a professional editor should be fired for letting slide. Recording the audiobook must have been torturous.
While the editing leaves much to be desired, what I perceive as The Sawbones Book’s biggest flaws are mostly features, not bugs. Weldon Owen is not an academic publisher, and the book is not designed for an academic audience: it is a beautifully illustrated book that uses comedy to make medical history accessible and fun. The authors are not historians. Still, the book has no citations. None. Not even for historical images. The podcast rarely mentions its sources, but the omission feels far more egregious in print.
Perhaps it feels that way because the index is also fake. As in, it stops at S, and the vast majority of the entries are for tools and knives. If you look for arsenic, for example, you’ll find “Arkansas Toothpick knife” and “art knives.” I never thought I’d type these words, but my dudes: a fake index is decidedly not funny. It’s adding insult to injury. I didn’t expect the book to follow all the conventions of the academic field from which it draws, but I did expect better than I got.
My final criticism is that, while I appreciated the authors’ subtlety, I sometimes wished their allusions to concepts like social determinants of public health were more direct. Both authors are talented enough to cleverly communicate that science both constructs and is constructed by ableism, white supremacy, and cisheteropatriarchy. While it’s clear that both Justin and Sydnee fully understand that the stories they tell in The Sawbones Book are often about the consequences of political and social inequality, I wanted them to more fully integrate that kind of analysis into the text. Their reach may extend further for their light critical touch, but I would argue it does so at the expense of impact.
Frustrations duly exorcised and attempt at objectivity made, this is a really fun book. It’s beautifully illustrated, funny — at times laugh out loud funny — and does exactly what it purports to do: it makes medical history accessible and interesting.
The Sawbones Book fits into a genre I lovingly refer to as “bathroom books.” Others call them coffee-table books, but those things are always ginormous, and nobody ever reads them. I call The Sawbones Book a bathroom book because: (a) it is reasonably sized, (b) generally speaking, it’s designed such that you can open to a random page and not feel completely lost, and (c) the content is variable enough in length to accommodate what I’ll oh-so-diplomatically call a wide range of entertainment needs.
The layout is similar to a textbook, in that it has themed pull-outs like “Syndee’s Medical History Corner,” and “Do We Still Do This Today?” that accompany longer stories, all easily readable in under a minute. Longer narratives are likewise broken up with illustrations, diagrams, and one-page features on specific topics. Bathroom books are delightful because they are reader friendly in ways most books — especially books on topics like medical history — can only hope to be. Growing up, my mom (not a doctor, mind you) kept a copy of Gray’s Anatomy in her bathroom. I can safely say The Sawbones Book is a better choice.
The Sawbones Book is also a bathroom book because it — like the podcast that inspired it — spends a lot of time dealing with all manner of secretion and excretion. A LOT of time. Most Nursing Clio readers will be unfazed by their discussions of urine’s medicinal uses throughout history, or scientist Max Joseph Von Pettenkofer’s horrifying intervention into the field of hygiene, but I wouldn’t gift this text to anybody without first knowing that they have a strong stomach for all things humourous. (Get it?)
The superior quality of the illustrations and accessible design of this book can’t be overstated. The credit for that belongs to Teylor Smirl, a comic book artist who also happens to be one of Sydnee’s siblings. The only drawback is one that is common to most books filled with illustrations: it looks perfect for children. I’m not exaggerating when I say that, between the drawings and the content, this probably would have been nine-year-old me’s favorite book. The thing is, when I was nine, I was also reading biographies that detailed Desi Arnaz’s alcoholism and Marilyn Monroe’s misadventures bleaching her pubic hair.
To be more direct: put in the hands of a child, The Sawbones Book’s extended discussions of erectile dysfunction, syphilis, and masturbation will prompt questions not all parents are prepared to answer. In the podcast, Justin and Sydnee precede episodes on these topics with parental advisories. In this very specific context, it’s a shame that books don’t work that way. Let’s hope to see a The Sawbones Book For Kids come out in the near future. Maybe Weldon Owen will actually edit that one!
All told, The Sawbones Book is a surprisingly good representation of the podcast that inspired it. If you’re debating whether you want the book, I strongly suggest listening to a few episodes first. If you don’t like what you hear, you won’t like what you see. If you enjoy the podcast as much as I do, though, well, you’re going to really enjoy hanging out in my guest bathroom.
Andrea Milne is a SAGES Teaching Fellow and Full-Time Lecturer in the Department of History at Case Western Reserve University. Her current research focuses on the nurses who developed the first AIDS ward in the United States. She received her PhD from the University of California, Irvine in 2017.