There are a great many physicians of history who were also authors: people like John Keats or William Carlos Williams, who found that, through their medical training, they learned not only of disease and death, but also of the human condition. The study of medicine apparently enhanced these writers’ literary practice, so it should seemingly then follow that the study of literature could enhance a physician’s medical practice. And indeed, reading, particularly the reading of books and poems in the health memoir genre, can help to develop empathy and allow doctors to better connect with their patients.
All physicians should read when they can, and it’s with this belief that the students of the current Medical Honors Program (MHP) cohort have compiled a list of “Top 10 Must-Reads for Doctors.” We hope that you find these selections as impactful as we have:
1. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
In this celebrated 1997 book, journalist Anne Fadiman chronicles the real-life experiences of a Hmong refugee family from Laos, and their frequent clashes with American physicians as they try (or don’t try) to get treatment for their daughter’s epilepsy. There’s a clear dichotomy here between Western systems of medicine and typical Hmong practices, and this book details well the disconnect that can often happen when doctors are of a different culture than their patients
2. Alternative Medicine by Rafael Campo
In this his sixth collection of poetry, esteemed poet-physician Rafael Campo examines the interplay of language and healing, making the argument that mediums like art and poetry can be therapeutic in and of themselves. He showcases here a deep comprehension of pain, recounting his struggles with identity as a gay Cuban American man, and suggests that even with this hurt, there remains the possibility of hope and restoration.
3. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks’ popular 1985 book describes his encounters with patients afflicted with a variety of neurological disorders. Many of the people suffering from these conditions experienced a dramatic shift in their daily lives upon their diagnosis, and Sacks does an excellent job at highlighting the way that disease can alter one’s perspective, putting us “in the frame of mind” of the patients he speaks to.
4. Open Heart: A Cardiac Surgeon’s Stories of Life and Death on the Operating Table by Stephen Westaby
Despite having performed over eleven thousand heart surgeries, Dr. Stephen Westaby remains enthralled by the organ and everything having to do with it. In this memoir of his career, he outlines his struggles with communication, arguing that the best doctors are the ones who are the most compassionate. He also mentions briefly his great fascination with the arts, drawing connections between the acts of painting and surgery. This is a wonderful read for anyone interested in the interdisciplinary nature of medicine.
5. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey
In this memoir of a patient struck by a disease that leaves her bedridden, Elisabeth Tova Bailey recounts her journey of survival and resilience in the face of a life seemingly without purpose. Bailey’s closest companion over the course of her illness—a tiny snail she keeps near her bedside table—shows how impactful even the smallest things in life can be. This book will leave you with a newfound appreciation for nature and for health.
6. Empty by Susan Burton
For almost thirty years, Susan Burton has struggled with binge eating and anorexia. In this heart-wrenching memoir, she lays out her experiences in learning to accept her disorder and in seeking help. Burton explores the idea of shame, both as a concept and as a feeling, denoting especially the ways in which shame can be so intrinsic to the journeys of people living with stigmatized conditions.
7. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
In this acclaimed book, Dr. Atul Gawande examines how the culture of medicine has often revolved around the idea of “combating” illness, rather than just simply “improving” life. He notes through various patient encounters how difficult it can be for doctors to see people outside of their disease, ultimately arguing that as physicians, we must look not towards avoiding death, but to providing a life of contentment and dignity.
8. My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story by Abraham Verghese
Dr. Abraham Verghese recounts in this popular memoir his experiences working in a rural Tennessee community ravaged by the AIDS crisis. Verghese, an Indian physician, reckons with being an ”outsider” in this small conservative town, and learns how best to shape his practice in response to his patient population. At times both heartbreaking and hopeful, this book will dramatically reshape your definition of medicine.
9. Most of Me: Surviving My Medical Meltdown by Robyn Michele Levy
In this humorous retelling of her journey with various illnesses, Canadian author Robyn Levy catalogues her interactions with the medical system, traveling from her initial experiences of symptoms to her final diagnosis. While the book has a generally light-hearted tone, Levy does a nice job in emphasizing the various inequities present in healthcare, particularly remarking on the discrimination she faced as a woman trying to seek treatment.
10. Hundreds of Interlaced Fingers: A Kidney Doctor’s Search for A Perfect Match by Vanessa Grubbs
In this memoir, Dr. Vanessa Grubbs reckons with potentially donating one of her kidneys to boyfriend Robert Phillips, a politician who would later become her husband. She explores the organ donation process—highlighting the inequities of the transplantation system– and describes the moment she realized that she’d fallen in love with the study of the kidney. This is a fantastic book for those interested in putting themselves in the perspective of prospective organ donors.
If you have any book recommendations for us as we begin our journey in medicine, we would love to hear from you! Please reach out to us at MHPAmbassadors@gmail.com.