Fun fact: My daughter wrote her college essay on being a science and math kid living in a house of English majors. (If you want to earn a special place in her heart, ask her about the Unit Circle…or her new acrylic nails.) These past few months, she’s discovered a love for reading a very specific genre, what I’d maybe call “Medical Narrative Nonfiction.” For those of you who might have teenagers like her, or be like her, she’s been on a great run. In my newsletter, I’ve already mentioned that she devoured Hidden Valley Road (about a family with twelve children, six of whom were schizophrenic); but there’s also Patient H.M. (about one of medicine’s most famous patients, who was unable to form longterm memories after a corrective surgery went wrong); The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (probably does not need a summary but it’s about how scientists cultured cells from a poor Black woman — without her family’s consent, knowledge, or compensation — which led to some of the century’s most famous medical advancements); and (on deck) Empire of Pain, about the massive role the Sackler family played in America’s opioid addiction crisis.
When I wrote about this on my newsletter earlier this week and asked readers what she should pick up next, I got the most amazing responses and I wanted to make sure you all had the definitive Baker’s Dozen list. (There were about 35 suggestions in all.) It’s organized roughly by popularity — the first one on the list got the most endorsements — but I also had the resident book editor (aka, husband) in the house peruse the whole list to make sure we weren’t overlooking any masterpieces or Pulitzers.
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman
Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddharata Mukherjee
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, by John Carreyou
Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
The Radium Girls, by Kate Moore
Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande
Far from the Tree, by Andrew Solomon
Five Days at Memorial, by Sheri Fink
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks
The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, by Michael Lewis
The Tennis Partner, by Abraham Verghese
Thank you all for the suggestions. Can’t wait to plow through the list.
PS: By the way, if you want to be part of the conversation as it’s happening, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter. Every week, I send out one email called Three Things (2021’s version of the Project, Purpose, Pantry series), with a round-up of, yep, three things I think you’ll find interesting. In addition to reading suggestions, there are also my signature super simple dinner ideas, like this gorgey-gorge tomato tart that takes under five minutes to assemble. This part is all FREE. If you want book teasers and access to my hotline and podcast, you’ll have to subscribe for $5 a month or $50 a year. And yes, I’ll continue posting here on this platform, but not as regularly. Hope you’ll join me somehow whatever you choose!
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Projections by Karl Deisseroth
ohmygod this was my favorite genre when I was a public health major in undergrad! I have a few recommendations to add to your list:
My Own Country, by Abraham Verghese, about his experiences as an infectious disease specialist in Tennessee during the height of the AIDS epidemic
Fighting for Life, by Sara Josephine Baker, a memoir of her time as a public health leader in New York City in the early 20th century, including her two times chasing Mary Mallon.
Medical Apartheid, by Harriet Washington, a rough read about the history and present of racism in health care and medical sciences. Rough, but important, especially for a a scientist!
American Eden, by Victoria Johnson, about David Hosack and the history of early American Botany. Also a great story about 18th century New York.
Flatland is a classic for anyone with an interest in maths, loved reading this as a mathematics/english major
The Butchering Art is an absolutely fascinating read about the history of germ theory and surgery. 🙂
Older but wonderful: A Natural History of the Senses (Diane Ackerman). Who could resist reading about “The Psychopharmacology of Chocolate”?
–Time on Fire: My Comedy of Terrors, by Evan Handler (of Sex and the City fame!).
–Sickened: The Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood by Julie Gregory. Sickened was ROUGH to read, but what a morbidly fascinating memoir.
I cannot recommend enough This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay and Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas by Adam Kay. They are both hilarious and heart warming at the same time.
I absolutely adored The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down!! Glad to see I’m not the only one 🙂
Narrative medicine is a 21st century bonafide! USC offers a master’s degree in the field. My son is in medical school, and I have recommended many of these fabulous books to him.
I just finished reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s excellent new book, Empire of Pain, about the Sackler family and the development of OxyContin. It was extremely well written, absolutely fascinating, and incredibly infuriating. It’s incredible to think of the impact that this family had on medical marketing, in addition to stoking the flames of the opioid crisis.
We are literally fighting over it in our house right now.
I listened to the audiobook version, which the author narrates, while I was out for some long runs while I was on vacation. Not coincidentally, the rage I felt when listening fueled some of the fastest miles I’ve ran in a long time.
The audiobook version might be a great solution for the runners in your family. 🙂
The Nature of Life and Death by Patricia Wiltshire. She is a forensic botanist who works with the police in England. Interview with her here https://www.cbc.ca/radio/quirks/august-15-2020-quirks-quarks-annual-book-show-1.5397535/tales-of-a-forensic-ecologist-tracking-criminals-with-pollen-and-spores-1.5397537
Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC was one of my favorites of this genre when I read it years ago: https://www.amazon.com/Level-4-Virus-Hunters-CDC-ebook/dp/B086BWPSFF/ref=sr_1_6?dchild=1&keywords=level+4&qid=1626720120&rnid=283155&s=books&sr=1-6
Please read ALL of Atul Gwande’s books! Maybe even if you don’t love non-fiction, or sciencey reads.
Definitely add this to the book list!
Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis https://www.amazon.com/dp/0767922476/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_glt_fabc_1DVKW06QTVCKD8SMCDPX
I have a couple more – A thousand naked strangers by Kevin Hazzard. And Working Stiff (about a medical examiner) by Judy Melinek.
And then there’s the harrowing Five Days at Memorial about a hospital in Hurricane Katrina
That’s a nice list! Thank you for sharing!