During the summer, before my first year of med school, I made it my mission to read as much as I possibly could. This was my all-consuming quest and I treated it as seriously as if I were stocking up on provisions for a long journey out to sea. I devoured books by and about doctors, read patient memoirs, and built up a reservoir of new ideas to keep me satiated through a long creative drought.
Maybe that’s little melodramatic, but welcome to my life.
To make a long story short, I read like I was never going to be able to read again. I buzzed through the stack of books that had been piling up next to my desk in the definitely-should-read-this-someday pile and after I was done, I dug through listicles and chatroom posts to find the “Books every doctor should read” and the “I wish I had read this before medical school” novels. These were great starting points and gave me some absolutely fantastic reads like Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal or Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of all Maladies, but after I had seen a few of these blog posts I began to notice that they were all pretty much the same. They contained tons of great books, don’t get me wrong, but in the end, most of the books that really spoke to me were never on these lists. Thus the Unconventional Reading List was born.
What follows is a distilled list of a few of the titles that you won’t find on most other recommended reading lists for future doctors. Many of these aren’t directly about patient care or health policy, but I felt like they have expanded my capacity for empathy and shaped me into a better student-doctor. Enjoy!
- Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates || Written in the form of an extended letter to the author’s son, Between the World and Me is an exploration of what it means to be black in America. For me, an upper-middle-class white guy, this book was uncomfortable, but in ways that lead me to a lot of reflection and personal growth.
- The Center Cannot Hold, Elyn R. Saks || This powerful memoir recounts Saks’s firsthand experience with schizophrenia and attempts to fight the stigma that surrounds her diagnosis. This book goes to show that individuals with schizophrenia can be successful and that even at their most acutely ill, doctors owe every patient the same respect.
- The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy || Published in 1886, this novella is surprisingly modern and tells the story of doctors becoming so focused on an impossible cure that they fail to recognize when the treatments are doing more harm than good. This story is ultimately about humanity in medicine and is a poignant reminder of what really matters in the end.
- How not to Die, Michael Greger || This book is written in two parts, the first, a review of the latest evidence that links nutrition to the top 15 causes of premature death in America, and the second, a thorough answer to its titular question: how not to die [early] (spoiler alert: the answer is plants). This book made the list because, despite a valiant effort by many medical schools, the role of nutrition in the genesis and treatment of disease is under-taught and underutilized by physicians.
- In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Gabor Maté || This book is both a collection of vignettes about patients who suffer from addiction and a review of the latest research that presents addiction as an illness rather than a moral failing. This book was instrumental in my understanding of addiction as a disease and has been a lens through which I have viewed many of my interactions with patients.
- Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl || In this book, Frankl sets out to chronicle his time in Nazi death camps and his post-war career as a psychotherapist. While the specifics of his method of psychotherapy are not used today, the book is valuable in that it shows the importance of not only treating a patient’s suffering but in putting that suffering into context and working toward healing.
- The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine, Eric Cassell || Fair warning, this one is not a page-turner. In fact, it reminds me of a textbook without pictures, but if you’re someone who thinks that a doctors only job is to cure sickness at any cost to the patient, then this is something you should consider. This book has been put through several editions, but when it was first published it was one of the first books calling for what we now know as ‘patient-centered care’, and it drastically changed my perspective on what medicine should be about.
- Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy || Written while JFK was still a senator for Massachusetts, Profiles in Courage tells the stories of a number of Senators whom JFK admired for their willingness to follow their conscience, even when they stood alone. These stories are specifically about politicians, but the lessons in each vignette are just as applicable to medicine, and as a history buff I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
- The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt || If you think Conservatives are cruel or Liberals are idiots, then this is an excellent read to challenge that assumption. In this book, Hadit attempts to explain how two equally rational people could have opposite opinions on politics, religion, and morality. This book is single-handedly responsible for saving my last family Thanksgiving and it is one that I recommend to anyone who gets sucked into a conversation with me about politics.
- Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut || With a plot involving time travel, porn stars, and highly advanced aliens all set against the backdrop of WWII, this novel sounds crazy, yet manages to be an extremely potent antiwar book, as well as a near perfect depiction of PTSD. This is my favorite book of all time and I highly recommend it to all people, let along all future-doctors.
- Still Alice, Lisa Genova|| Still Alice is a novel about a university professor who suffers from early onset Alzheimer’s at the height of her career. As a person who has always depended on his intellect, this book was gut-wrenching and gave me new insight and sympathy for those that suffer from dementia.
- Working, Studs Terkel || This is the only book on this list that I haven’t actually read in its entirety because it is an easy book to put down and pick up as you like. Working is written in the form of dozens of interview transcripts with people from all walks of life, from nurse to steal worker and from physician to police officer. The book was written in the 70’s so some of the occupations are a bit out of date, but for me, it was basically an extended exercise in empathy.
This list is by no means exhaustive, so let me know in the comments if you have any suggestions for further reading! –Max