The Remarkable Life of the Skin by Monty Lyman

Review by Simon Thomas, 5 Sept 2019

The number of science books I’ve read can be numbered on my fingers, and the number of science books I’ve read that weren’t written by Oliver Sacks is nil. Until now! Full disclosure, Monty Lyman is a friend of mine – and that was why I picked up The Remarkable Life of the Skin. But I’m very glad I did, and would definitely recommend it to anybody who doesn’t have the privilege of being Monty’s friend.

Lyman (let’s keep this review professional) is a doctor in Oxford, and his research has specialised in dermatology. That interest has taken him around the world, and the book reports on interesting cases from most of the planet’s continents – with an especial interest in Tanzania. The real marvel of The Remarkable Life of the Skinis is how much content it packs into a relatively short space.

It’s obvious from the outset that Lyman is super excited about skin – or the ‘swiss army organ’, as he labels it. He quotes censoriously a surgeon colleague who calls it “the wrapping paper that hides the presents”, and spends a little time in talking about what a fantastic job it does. Not just at keeping the organs in (thanks skin!) but in all manner of other ways relating to its neurology, temperature control, and response to infection, to name but a few.

For those of us who have always rather taken the skin for granted, this might be the ideal book. As I say, my knowledge of science is very, very beginner – and this book is accessible for the novice. Indeed, I would imagine any medical doctor might know quite a lot of what is in here already. Me? I knew nothing.

The bit that caught the attention of newspapers was about sunburn. How even one severe sunburn as a child can drastically increase the chance of skin cancer later in life. And how we should all be slathering on protection much more often than we think. Being a doctor, he’s also able to give the reasons for all of this, in a fairly indisputable way.

That may be the headline-grabbing bit, but I was most interested in the areas where Lyman looks at more sociological factors. I was astonished by how many people with acne have attempted suicide – it is not a trivial thing. More light-heartedly, the section on blushing was informative and intriguing. The links between mind and skin are still to be fully explored, but the different possibilities that Lyman raises made me want to learn more. And his experiences as a medic in remote areas of Africa made for interesting and occasionally sobering reading – such as the community where children with albinism have to be schooled in a secure building, to prevent them being killed for superstitious medicine.

Look, yes, I skimmed over some of the more nitty-gritty bits. I’m pretty squeamish and I’m happy to leave my skin mites in peace if they’ll return the favour. But there is a lot in The Remarkable Life of the Skin for even the most squeamish – and Lyman writes extremely well. He treads the line between anecdotal and informational brilliantly. It probably helps that I already know he’s a lovely chap, but I think that does also come across in his writing. He has humanity and empathy alongside knowledge, and that brings the book alive.

I think this will solve a lot of “what should we get Dad for Christmas?” quandaries, but I also think it’ll appeal to people who don’t imagine they’d want to pick up a book about the skin. Like me, for example!

Simon is one of the Shiny Editors At Large, and blogs at Stuck in a Book.

Monty Lyman, The Remarkable Life of the Skin (Bantam, 2019). 978-1787632073, 304pp., hardback.

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