Matt Richtel plumbs the enormous impact of the human immune system in ‘Elegant Defense’
By Lou Fancher
The biological system charged with preserving human life, diversity and reproduction is also the instrument which will kill the majority of us.
It’s one of the paradoxes that fascinates Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel in his new book, “An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of The Immune System” (William Morrow, $28.99, 409 pages).
The San Francisco-based Richtel has written several thrillers, but his first nonfiction outing, 2014’s “A Deadly Wandering,” about distracted-driving, combined compelling human narratives with in-depth science writing. He is a reporter at The New York Times, the creator and former writer of the daily comic strip “Rudy Park” and has appeared on NPR and PBS NewsHour.
Subtitled “A Tale in Four Lives,” “Elegant Defense” examines the immune system’s history and future through the lens of science, records and research and the case histories of four individuals. It describes the wide umbrella of the immune system’s astonishing domain: HIV, diabetes, asthma, colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, cancer, infections, fever, overprescribed antibiotics, T cells, macrophages, neutrophils and other vital components. Despite the topic’s staggering complexity and the extensive information in Richtel’s fact-filled coverage, the heart and fine craft of a storyteller emerges most memorably throughout the book.
“I love fiction,” Richtel says. “I deeply appreciate story that moves. I love nonfiction when it has momentum. When I read a book that’s dryly factual, one that feels more like white paper than story, I cannot engage with it.”
Richtel’s book includes the personal accounts of two women who suffer hard-to-diagnose autoimmune diseases, a miracle HIV survivor and Jason Greenstein, a close friend of Richtel’s whose episodic battle with cancer entails both a celebratory “festival of life” and a grim foreshadowing of inevitable mortality.
“What the stories do is show you the nuance – what science looks like in real life. They’re my favorite parts to write,” Richtel says.
The emotions and struggles of the people featured in his book are a “big crayon box of colors,” Richtel says, and their stories “exploded” into his hands and helped flesh out the science. “I get to see that everybody is their own Ferrari. Science takes me under the hood, but first I get to see them drive, hear them sing their own opera.”
It’s not accidental that Richtel, a guitar player and songwriter, mentions music. Self-described as “scrappy and fiercely joyful” in his nonwriting pursuits — tennis, singing, espresso-drinking and activities with his wife, Stanford neurologist Meredith Barad, and their two children — Richtel finds his greatest bliss in words well chosen, spartan language that avoids clichés and celebrates storytelling. “Whether I write a song or prose, I’m trying to have the language be consistent with the story, engaging to the audience, but reflective of the core emotion I’m trying to communicate.”
Recalling childhood years in Boulder, Colorado, he finds possible origins for his interest in the immune system and wellness. Richtel’s father ran marathons and favored trail mix, he says, and “I had a mom who was an insanely early adopter of what is now seen as a very thoughtful approach to health. In two words: carob chips. We didn’t have sugar, soda. She thought eating healthy, getting rest were extremely important. She only violated that herself by buying double stuff Oreos and sneak-eating them at night. We’d conduct special ops searches for them.”
In the new book, Richtel tells not merely facts about the immune system, but how it plays out for him and in the lives of Jason, Bob, Linda and Merredith. “The narrative arc of the book is that we all die,” he says. “That scares the publisher, because what sells books is, ‘I’m going to tell you to eat this one thing, and you’re going to live longer.’ This book isn’t the magic pill. I offer the reader a bitter pill. How to live with more peace and happiness, but not forever. The stories are about the realness of living and, in some cases, dying.”
Which is not to say Richtel avoids offering advice: foremost is getting enough sleep. “If there’s a single tool you have, it’s sleep. It can take its toll if you compromise it,” he warns. Also, handle raw meat cautiously, due to its many pathogens; avoid super-boosting the immune system, which can trigger autoimmunity, allergies and other diseases; engage in exercise; follow a balanced diet and practice stress reduction.
Up next for Richtel is “The Man Who Wouldn’t Die,” a comedic neo-noir novel set in San Francisco and so unusual that William Morrow will publish it in August under a pen name, A.B. Jewell. “They said ‘we love it, but it doesn’t fit your brand,’ whatever that means, so they’ll use a pen name. I said, ‘Hey, have a ball.’”
When beginning a new project, he says he must believe, “I will create something brilliant,” but he can only proceed by telling himself repeatedly that whatever comes out will be fine. How it’s received isn’t of ultimate importance. Writing, he says, is acknowledging the divine spark of life, then allowing it to run freely.