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Polly PaddockWhen Gail Godwin's agent first floated the idea of her writing a nonfiction book about the heart "a lush, writerly, intimate book with a narrative arc" - she turned him down. She loved the idea of reading such a book, Godwin said, but she was a novelist. The idea kept her awake that night, however. She thought of broken hearts and hearts worn on sleeves; of the heart as a lonely hunter and the heart of darkness; of losing heart, taking heart, carrying those we love deep within our hearts. By morning, the acclaimed Asheville-born novelist A Mother and Two Daughters, Evensong was ready to make her first foray into nonfiction. The result is indeed "lush, writerly, intimate." And though Heart occasionally threatens to become too scholarly, Godwin always jumps back in with a personal anecdote or provocative insight that makes it a joy to read. She writes of her brother's suicide: "Though the official cause of death was gunshot wounds to the head, I believe my brother Tommy died of a broken heart." She writes about an acquaintance's spontaneous gift of flowers to a depressed woman, who took the simple gesture as a message that she should go on living: "Heart acts are often improvisational detours from point-to-point plans." She writes, too, about great lovers in literature and history: Abelard and Heloise, C.S. and Helen Joy Lewis. "A heart open to great love is equally open to great pain when that love is lost," she observes. As such anecdotes suggest, Godwin is far less interested in the heart as life-giving organ than as "the wellspring of our human emotions." She probes the heart's role in literature, religion, myth, history, art and culture, returning time and again to "the great rift between heart and head" that fractured 17th century thought and plagues us still: " We who are living now remain the children of the Great Heart Split. We're not orphans; both our parents, mind and heart, are still alive; we visit them regularly, but they don't live together anymore. They subscribe to their different values, and we have to be careful to respect the realities of the parent we're currently staying with. But like all children from divided homes, we continue to dream of a future epoch when all of us can be together." It wasn't always that way, as Godwin makes clear. She looks at the heart in literature (from Dante and Shakespeare to Henry James and Anton Chekhov); in religion (from The Egyptian Book of the Dead to Jesus, Lao-tzu, Muhammad and St. Augustine); in philosophy (from Socrates to Carl Jung), and in art (from the first representation of the heart as a small, red shape in a prehistoric cave drawing more than 12,000 years ago to the 20th-century work of Paul Klee). For much of human history, Godwin emphasizes, the heart was seen as a source of strength, courage, wisdom and creativity; "the crucible of a person's true essence"; the place where God resides in man. Beginning with the ancient Greeks, however, Western culture was "off and running into the era of left-brain glories." Today, Godwin writes, "the poetic heart is lost; the only heart we truly believe in is the one we watch on our angiogram screen and sacrifice butter and ice cream for and feel pumping fast as we plot our profit-and-loss tactics for the morrow. We stay so well defended that we hesitate to pursue things passionately enough to risk a broken heart." If Godwin has a message, it's that we need "to develop a new consciousness of the heart" - to cultivate such "heart qualities" as openness, attentiveness, humor and hospitality, even in our head-worshipping age. In coming to that conclusion, she has - with prodigious research, great thoughtfulness and graceful prose - delivered an unusual but compelling little book.