Why you should care
Reading one of these books might change your life.
There have been many great physician-writers whose writings, over time, have arguably had as much impact on the world, if not more, as their healing powers. Some of the more famous include French satirist François Rabelais, Egyptian novelist Nawal El Saadawi and Russian short story writer Anton Chekhov. Here’s a peek at what’s on the reading list of some extraordinary modern-day physician-writers — beyond patient charts!
Dr. Atul Gawande (Endocrine Surgeon)
I am not normally a science-fiction reader. But I recently made my way through the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy by the Chinese science-fiction writer Cixin Liu. The writing and characters are cardboard, but the story is mind-blowing. It starts with what happens on Earth when we receive a single, solitary message from another civilization, and it carries us forward through hundreds of years to ask whether we can — or should — develop trust and moral respect for other sentient beings.
The Light of the World is the memoir by the poet Elizabeth Alexander (she read her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Obama’s second inaugural) that tells of what came before and after her husband’s sudden death of a heart attack at age 50. It is the opposite of Cixin Liu’s book: short, deeply observed, capturing just a few brief years in time. And it is as inspiring as it is heartbreaking.
I dreaded the end even as I knew exactly how it ended. Or at least I thought I did.
Dr. Danielle Teller (Physician and Researcher)
I just finished The Sellout by Paul Beatty, which was a difficult read. It wasn’t that the language was inaccessible (though it sometimes was), or that ideas swarmed from the pages in thick, frenetic droves (though they did), but that every word seemed animated by barely repressed rage. The novel is advertised as satire, and there were genuinely funny moments, but the bitterness behind the humor gave the anger even more bite. Reading the book was like meeting a highly intellectual man who has been pushed to the brink of insanity, worrying that he is going to explode and, worse, feeling that I am partially responsible for driving him mad.
On a lighter note, I recently reread The Great Gatsby, which I first encountered when I moved to America for my medical training. Back then, I set myself the goal to read all of the American classics. I grew overconfident when I breezed through the easy ones, like The Grapes of Wrath and For Whom the Bell Tolls, and then I met my nemesis, Moby Dick. The Great Gatsby, on the other hand, was even more fun the second time around.
Dr. Ike Anya (Public Health Physician)
I’m rereading Obiora Udechukwu’s award-winning poetry collection, What the Madman Said. (I managed to find a copy last year at Skoto Gallery in New York and grabbed it, hugging it to my chest like an old friend.) The collection consists of lyrical, sometimes angry, sometimes poignant, always powerful reflections on the Nigerian and African condition, from the Biafran War to the 1980s. I first read it as a young medical student in Nigeria during a prolonged university closure ordered by the military president Babangida. The beautiful cadences of the verses, written in simple, elegant English but echoing the rhythms of the Igbo language, searing in its social criticism, comforted me and inspired me to write.
I’m also reading Talitha Stevenson’s Exposure, a beautifully realized portrait of an upper-middle-class London family whose lives are unraveling. I bought it in a secondhand bookshop a year ago, and as I read it, reveling in the parallels with contemporary Brexit London, I’m amazed that I had never come across this talented writer or this book before now.
Dr. Dawn Gross (Hospice and Palliative Medicine Physician)
Regardless of how one feels about physician aid-in-dying, the clarity with which Jo Roman, author of Exit House: Choosing Suicide as an Alternative, shares her deep meditation on the perspective that “by establishing one’s own life span on a constructive thoughtful basis … one then has options which, paradoxically, become life liberating and enriching” is astonishing. While some of the language choices are dated and in some instances even offensive (such as references to “defective children”), this rare look into the mind of a very thoughtful and articulate human consciously preparing for and approaching the end of her life is provocative and potentially life-altering.
I am obsessed with Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. From the moment I watched the movie Arrival, I needed to read its origin story. This book is a collection of short science-fiction gems that together create an arc of human thinking with particular attention to the influence of language and perception in ways that are truly awe-inspiring. My mind feels like it cracks open with ecstasy with every turn of the page. The wonderful thing about brilliant science-fiction writing is that it points to the truth of the human condition better than most nonfiction writing can dream.
Dr. Dixon Chibanda (Psychiatrist)
How Change Happens by Duncan Green is about the nongovernmental organization world and how it often gets things wrong by focusing on the political elite. Green shares his experiences as the head of research at Oxfam GB, and the lessons learned about success and failure in the global field of NGO- and grassroots-driven change. It’s a great read for anyone interested in how communities can drive the change process while engaging corporate and donor agencies to address issues such as poverty and equity.
I like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, because it reflects the reality of being Black not only in the U.S., although it’s set in the U.S. It’s really about the struggles that people of color have to constantly deal with in the face of police brutality, racial profiling and stereotyping. At a very personal level, it resonates with the angst I constantly experience as an African when I’m picked out at international airports for the ever-so-often “random security check.”
Dr. Nozipo Maraire (Neurosurgeon)
I recently read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, which was beautiful and gripping. It is about a 37-year-old ambitious, bright and gifted neurosurgeon at Stanford who finds he has advanced metastatic lung cancer. As both a doctor and a writer, I was riveted by his journey coming to grips with his vulnerability as a human being, and the way he denied, fought and then accepted his mortality. I dreaded the end even as I knew exactly how it ended. Or at least I thought I did. The book tackles the question of what makes life worth living in the face of death. I loved it.
I just finished reading Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham, having recently been enraptured by the great Lincoln biography, A Team of Rivals. Meacham’s telling of the life of one of America’s founding fathers is a magnificent read. I am astounded at how experimental the idea of a democracy was in the late 1700s. I had no idea how fragile this notion had been, how often it was almost jettisoned, how many times it was almost doomed. What struck me the most was how much the founders of this great nation believed in freedom of expression and equality of men. I was humbled at how true they were to their principles.
- Surgeon Dr. Atul Gawande started a health care revolution with his book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. He is also the author of Being Mortal and writes for The New Yorker.
- Novelist and former medical researcher Dr. Danielle Teller sent us her responses while working on a new novel at a writing retreat. She received her medical training at McGill University, Brown and Yale and has held faculty positions at the University of Pittsburgh and Harvard. Her novel All the Ever Afters will be published in May.
- Being an essayist and a public health doctor sometimes gets Dr. Ike Anya into trouble with Nigerian policemen who don’t believe you can be both. He hopes that finishing his memoir about becoming a doctor in 1990s Nigeria and getting published will convince them.
- Author of poetry and prose as well as a magic-wand bearer and stethoscope wrangler, Dr. Dawn Gross is a hospice and palliative medicine physician who encourages others to share their stories on her radio show, Dying to Talk. She is a daughter and a sister, a wife and a mother.
- Psychiatrist and professor Dr. Dixon Chibanda is an Aspen New Voices fellow. His work focuses on global mental health with an emphasis on developing interventions to narrow the treatment gap for mental neurological and substance-use disorders.
- Novelist Dr. Nozipo Maraire messaged us her responses in between surgeries in Harare, Zimbabwe. She is a Harvard-, Columbia- and Yale-educated and trained neurosurgeon and an entrepreneur, a wife of one and a mother of four. Her 1996 novel, Zenzele, was reviewed by the New York Times and deemed a Notable Book of the Year.