Books to read by and about doctors

A novelist friend writes to me saying how much she’s admired the neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s book Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery. She asks me to recommend other doctor books. Here’s my (edited) response.

“I haven’t read Henry Marsh’s book, although I intend to. Many people have mentioned it to me. I have, however, read “the other book by a neurosurgeon”–When Breath Becomes Air. It’s a global, as opposed to British, best seller and is read by many because of the early death of Paul Kalanithi, the author. I was more interested, however, by his account of how he became a neurosurgeon as he thought it a better route than philosophy or literature to understand life and people. I blogged about it for the BMJ and put a collection of quotes from the book on my website.

The other “doctor book” that everybody has been reading over the past two years is Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal. Gawande is perhaps the main contender for “best doctor writer,” although Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book on the history of cancer, Emperor of All Maladies, won a Pulitzer Prize and reads like a thriller.

Another recent book by a doctor is The Way We Die Now written by an Irish gastroenterologist about modern medicine’s failure to come to terms with death. It’s not as well known as the others, but I reviewed it and thought it marvellous.

The classic is House of God by Samuel Shem published in 1978.  It will appal you if you read it, but it speaks to all junior doctors–even now. I think of it as being a Catch 22 of medicine. The Edinburgh equivalent is Colin Douglas’s The Houseman’s Tale: it’s OK on being a junior doctor in Edinburgh in the 70s, but the way he writes about sex make you squirm. A much better novel is his Sickness and Health about the NHS over many years.

Richard Gordon’s doctor books contributed heavily to the stereotypes of doctors and nurses we all seem to have, but I doubt that they have stood the test of time.

Chekhov is perhaps the greatest writer about being a doctor, and his Ward No 6, a response to Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych, is a must read.

I strongly recommend Anatole Broyard’s Intoxicated By My Illness in which as a patient he reflects on what it is to be a doctor and what constitutes being a good one. I’ve blogged on this too.

Finally, I’ve recently read Lionel Shriver’s So Much For That and I thought it deeply insightful about the relationship between an oncologist and a patient with what was an untreatable cancer.

That should keep you going.”




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