• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Five Quarts: A Personal and Natural History of Blood. Ballantine Books; 2005; 309 pages; $23.

FROM THE DUST JACKET:

"We're born in blood. Our family histories are contained in it, our bodies nourished by it daily. Five quarts run through each of us, along some 60,000 miles of arteries, veins, and capillaries." -- from Five Quarts

In the national bestseller Sleep Demons, Bill Hayes took us on a trip through the night country of insomnia. Now he is our guide on through history, literature, mythology, and science by means of the river that runs five quarts strong through our bodies. The journey stretches from ancient Rome, where gladiators drank the blood of vanquished foes to gain strength and courage, to modern-day laboratories, where high-tech machines test blood for diseases and scientists search for cures. Along the way, there will be triumphs: William Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood; Anton van Leeuwenhoek's advances in making the invisible world visible in the microscope; Dr. Paul Ehrlich's Nobel-Prize-winning work in immunology; Dr. Jay Levy's codiscovery of the virus that causes AIDS. Yet there will also be ignorance and tragedy: the widespread practice of bloodletting via incision and the use of leeches, which harmed more than it healed; the introduction of hemophilia into the genetic pool of 19th-century European royalty thanks to the dynastic ambitions of Queen Victoria; the alleged spread of contaminated blood through a phlebotomist's negligence in modern-day California.

This is also a personal voyage, in which Hayes recounts the impact of the vital fluid in his daily life, from growing up in a household of five sisters and their monthly cycles, to coming out as a gay man during the early days of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, to his enduring partnership with an HIV-positive man.

As much a biography of blood as it is a memoir of how this rich substance has shaped one man's life, Five Quarts is by turns whimsical and provocative, informative and moving.

WHAT THE CRITICS HAVE TO SAY:

From Publishers Weekly: Hayes uses his own encounters with blood's ability to save and destroy lives as a launching point for anecdotes in the larger story of blood. He launches into an account of the discovery of blood's components and its function in the body, and meanders through cultural perceptions of blood, from the sacred (the Eucharist) to the profane (Dracula). Hayes ranges far beyond red and white blood cells, platelets and plasma, taking readers inside a modern blood bank and to the bedside of a woman with hemophilia.... His sometimes irreverent commentary on misconceptions about blood doesn't shy away from the gruesome, particularly a cringe-inducing description of early blood transfusion techniques.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Bill Hayes was born in Minneapolis in 1961. "And then," Hayes said, on the day that we spoke, each from our California homes, "three years later, in 1964, our family moved to Spokane, Washington. We moved there because my dad bought a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Spokane. I had five sisters. I was the only boy. We settled in Spokane and went to Catholic school there all the way through. Then I went to a Jesuit university, Santa Clara University, outside San Francisco. In 1983 I graduated from Santa Clara. I majored in English. I had a series of jobs in nonprofits. Organizations and causes that interested me. One of my first jobs was at the Eureka Theater Company in San Francisco. I talked them into hiring me at age 24 as the marketing/public relations director. That was wonderful. Then I went to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and then I worked in a series of jobs in communications and public relations. Then AIDS became significant in my life, and I began doing volunteer work at the AIDS Foundation and then started working there. I also worked for the Library Foundation, raising money for San Francisco's new main library. But all the while I was busy at various nonprofits, I was writing when I had spare time in the mornings and on weekends. And publishing here and there in magazines and newspapers."Mr. Hayes is the author of the national bestseller Sleep Demons: An Insomniac's Memoir. His work has been published in The New York Times Magazine and Details, among other publications, and at Salon.com. He lives in San Francisco with his partner Steve.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:

"Insomnia has defined my life as an individual, and insomnia was the subject of my first book. What I came to realize is that blood has also come to define my life. My partner Steve has HIV. Blood tests have been a nerve-wracking part of our life together over the past 15 years. "The idea for this book started in a mundane way three years ago. I was standing in our kitchen, slicing potatoes. I sliced too hurriedly. I cut my finger.

"I instinctively stuck my finger into my mouth. I'd done this many times before, but on that particular day, for some reason, the taste of blood triggered memories.

"I was struck by how blood had defined our lives as a couple but also realized that I had, over the past 15 years, come to fear blood and to see blood as a hazardous substance, a carrier of disease and a source of anxiety for Steve and for me.

"My own blood had become tainted by this perception. Even though I am HIV-negative. So the more I thought about it, I saw how, in writing the book, I could reclaim the goodness of blood and learn about its history and also see it for what it is, as this amazing substance. I started out knowing little about blood, its history, or its science. I learned a lot in the process of writing."

"You're getting good at science writing."

"Thank you. It has taken time. What I wanted to do was weave together a natural history of blood, stretching from ancient Rome on through the Renaissance and 19th-century England and up to the modern day and then weave it together with a memoir about how blood has affected my life.

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader

More from the web

Comments

Sign in to comment

Join our
newsletter list

Enter to win $25 at Broken Yolk Cafe

Each newsletter subscription
means another chance to win!

Close