The Family That Couldn't Sleep | Granta

  • Published: 01/05/2008
  • ISBN: 9781846270901
  • 130x20mm
  • 336 pages

The Family That Couldn’t Sleep

D.T. Max

The first symptoms begin after just a few sleepless nights, with shaking, sweating and overwhelming anxiety. They end only after months of agonising open-eyed deterioration when the victim finally falls into a coma-like state of exhaustion and then dies. Fatal Familial Insomnia is a rare, inherited disease that has afflicted one noble Venetian family for centuries, striking at random and passing from generation to generation like a deadly dynastic curse. The cause? A rogue protein called a prion, which is impossible to destroy and is also responsible for Mad Cow Disease and scrapie in sheep. In this groundbreaking work of scientific detection, D. T. Max pins down this most mutable and maddening of enemies and tells a story that is at once enlightening and spell-binding.

A devastating look at the politics of scientific research and a withering condemnation of British farming methods, this is one of the books of the year

Scotland on Sunday

Brilliantly disturbing


One of the best works of pop-sci of the past decade. Unless you have nerves of steel, just don't eat beef or lamb while you are reading it.... This is the fascinating and moving story of how medical researchers, doctors, veterinarians and anthropologists began to piece together the mystery of what causes prions to mutate and the mechanisms by which prion diseases are spread... Max pulls off the seemingly impossible by bringing these non-living proteins and their ability to wreak havoc on animal and human population vividly to life. He is a terrific storyteller and has the rare knack of making complex and cutting edge science accessible. You don't have to know anything about prions or disease or science to be drawn helplessly into this book, so beautifully does Max give shape to his material. And though the subject matter may, at first, seem gloomy or even prurient, Max's admiration for the creativity and persistence of the scientific detectives who daily grind away in labs across the world inching prion research forward, despite all the politicking, egomania, careerism and lost opportunity of all human endeavour, simply adds to the sense of wonder that so much has been discovered, so quickly.

Melanie McGrath, Evening Standard

The Author

D. T. MAX is a journalist and essayist who has written for the New York Times Book Review, and the LA Times. He is currently a Staff Writer with the New Yorker, His previous book with Portobello was The Family That Couldn’t Sleep (2007).

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From the Same Author

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story

D.T. Max

David Foster Wallace is to contemporary literature what Kurt Cobain is to music. He died young enough for his promise and his achievements to solidify into a legend. For many, he became someone worth reading, revering, following.

How had a teen tennis prodigy turned ace philosophy student turned novelist managed to become a generation-defining star? And how painful was that process for him? What was it that he stood for that chimed with so many? And how much did his, and his country’s, addictions defeat him? D. T. Max was determined to find out, and this scrupulous and revealing biographical study, which draws on conversations with those closest to Wallace and on extensive archive material, is the haunting result.

D.T. Max on

In Conversation | The Online Edition

D.T. Max | Podcast

D.T. Max

D.T. Max on about why ‘David always wanted to be one David’, the solace he found in twelve-step programmes and what his use of wiper-fluid, on a car ride with Jonathan Franzen, reveals about his prose style.