With its rich vibrant color, watery flow, and distinctive feel and taste, blood has been the source of fear, fascination, and awe throughout the centuries. Blood has been revered by many cultures, has been thought to have mystical powers, and is the source of folklore, legends, and religious beliefs. Blood has a wide spectrum of meanings that are often complex and contradictory. Blood has been viewed as a source of life and a carrier of deadly diseases, as the apogee of purity and the nadir of filth, and as a force to unite people and a justification of war.
Bill Hayes, the author of Five Quarts: A Personal and Natural History of Blood, is a young, gay San Francisco journalist. This is Hayes's second book. His first, Sleep Demons: An Insomniac's Memoir (2001), was a national bestseller. Hayes has also written articles for a number of popular magazines. Five Quarts (the average amount of blood in the adult human body) is an eclectic book that defies simple classification into any conventional literary genre. It is a "hybrid" work that is in part a history of blood; a social history of medicine; a study of blood as a metaphor in ancient mythology, modern literature, and popular culture; and a very personal memoir of the author. The book ranges from such topics as Hippocrates' humoral theory of blood to William Harvey's discovery of the blood's circulation to Jay Levy's co-discovery of HIV. Other topics range from the history of bloodletting in medical practice, which resulted in the death of George Washington, to Queen Victoria's spread of hemophilia into the genetic pool of nineteenth-century European royalty, to a recent criminal trial of a California phlebotomist accused of deliberately reusing needles and infecting patients. Topics also include the use of blood as a metaphor in [End Page 522] literature and popular culture and range from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to Bram Stoker's Dracula to Alfred Hitchcock's film Psycho to the comic book character Spider-Man. Interspersed among these many topics, Hayes recounts the impact of blood on his own daily life, from growing up in a household with five sisters to coming out as a gay man in the early days of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco to living with his HIV-positive longtime partner.
Five Quarts is a thoughtful, well-crafted book that is an easy and enjoyable read. Hayes has a personal and personable writing style that charms and captivates the reader. Despite covering so many topics, the book flows seamlessly from chapter to chapter. The book suffers, however, from a large number of important omissions and technical problems. For example, despite the large number of pages devoted to AIDS, incredibly the book fails to even mention the co-discovery of HIV by Luc Montagnier at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and Robert Gallo at the National Cancer Institute. It also fails to discuss the ensuing international controversy surrounding the virus's discovery. Instead, the book only briefly describes the work of Jay Levy at the University of California, San Francisco, the third, and much less known, independent co-discoverer of HIV. Another important omission is the lack of any discussion concerning the groundbreaking work of Karl Landsteiner in identifying blood types and the Rh factor, which enabled blood transfusions to be safely given. The book also fails to discuss the pioneering work of Oswald Robertson and Bernard Fantus in establishing the modern blood bank. Another rather glaring omission is the book's failure to discuss or even cite Richard Titmuss's classic work, The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy (1971), which resulted in important national and state legislation regulating the private blood market in the United States.
Lastly, although much less important than the omissions listed above, Five Quarts suffers from a lack of good quality and meaningful illustrations. Although the book is described as being "profusely illustrated" (it contains twenty-three illustrations), many of the drawings and photographs are of...