A quick Google search for “books about medicine” turns up countless results for pre-meds, medical students and doctors alike. At first, you may be excited to find so many suggestions, but once you look deeper, you’ll see that many articles simply list the same fifteen-odd books over and over again. It seems like no blog post entitled “Top Ten Books for Med Students” is complete without When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi), Being Mortal (Atul Gawande), and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (Oliver Sacks).
Granted, these are some of the most touching and insightful medicine-themed books out there, but once you’ve seen them recommended on half a dozen different websites, you can’t help but wish there were more variety. On top of that, almost all of the most common suggestions are non-fiction, and while you can’t question their educational value, you may find yourself missing the diversion that fictional narratives can provide. Finally, there’s no shame in admitting that sometimes, you just don’t want to think about medicine for a change. When you get home from a long day of class or clerkships and want to unwind with a book, it’s okay to reach for something that has nothing to do with the four walls of a hospital.
With that in mind, the books in this article have one thing in common: they’re works of fiction that will make you forget, at least for a few hours, that you’re a medical student at all — and at the same time, they’ll make you a better and more compassionate doctor. That may seem like an impossible task, but as you begin to read, you’ll notice that sickness shapes each storyline in subtle but undeniable ways. In these narratives, medicine is ancillary to the plot, but it’s also the key to setting it in motion.
That subtlety reflects the role medicine plays in the lives of your future patients. For you, medicine may be a lifestyle, but for your patient, it’s just a means to an end. If you focus only on fixing the problems they’ve presented with, you risk missing out on the ripple effects their illness can have on every other aspect of their lives long after they’ve left your office. The books on this list won’t get you any extra points on Step 1, but they’ll do something even more important: they’ll help you put yourself in your patients’ shoes and broaden your perspective on compassionate care beyond the clinical setting. ‘
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As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner)
This 1930 Southern Gothic novel is a dark comedy narrated by no fewer than fifteen different characters. Most of them are the immediate family members of Addie Bundren, who is on her deathbed when the story begins. Her husband, four sons, and daughter all process her death in different ways that sometimes conflict with one another. For instance, her son Cash spends his mother’s final days working on her coffin directly outside her window. Cash, a talented carpenter, wants to pay his respects to Addie through his craftsmanship, but other members of the family complain that Addie’s view of the coffin through the window — not to mention the constant sound of sawing — will encourage her to succumb to her illness. When Addie eventually dies, Cash is proud of how well the coffin fits her, but the baby of the family, Vardaman, is afraid that his mother will be unable to breathe. Vardaman drills several holes into the coffin lid, accidentally boring into Addie’s face at the same time.
Addie’s death is only the beginning of the Bundren family’s difficulties. The father, Anse, has promised to bring Addie’s body back to her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi, which is 400 miles away. During the family’s journey by wagon, the reader learns more about the flaws and fears of each of the characters, including the fact that the daughter, Dewey Dell, is seeking an abortion that’s impossible for her to obtain in the 1930s rural South. Another son, Darl, is viewed as “odd” by the rest of his community and is eventually institutionalized. Finally, the family decides to treat Cash’s broken leg by encasing it in concrete, which (unsurprisingly) only makes the situation worse.
As I Lay Dying focuses very little on medicine (in fact, we never even learn what Addie dies of), but it will definitely broaden your perspective on the role medical care — and the lack of it — has played throughout American history. If the Bundrens had lived in a different time period or a different state, or even if they had been educated townspeople instead of rural farmers, the outcomes of the family’s storylines might have been very different.
The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway)
This story takes place only a decade before As I Lay Dying, but the setting could hardly be more different. The protagonist, Jake Barnes, is an American expatriate in Paris who spends much of his time drinking with his fellow World War I veterans. Throughout Jake’s time in Paris and his travels in Spain, his romance with Lady Brett Ashley is a constant source of frustration for both of them. Although Brett tells Jake that she loves him, a war injury has left him impotent, and Brett decides that a marriage between them could never work. At the end of the novel, Brett imagines aloud how happy they could have been if it weren’t for Jake’s injury, to which Jake simply replies: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
To me, one of the most striking aspects of this book is how indirectly the subject of Jake’s injury is discussed. He and Brett talk about it in euphemisms, often substituting French words for things they aren’t comfortable saying in English. Modern medicine may mean that patients like Jake have more control over their treatment options today, but it can still be extremely difficult for them to discuss conditions that they consider embarrassing or taboo, even while those conditions affect every aspect of their lives. Some are left wondering “what if,” maybe even blaming themselves for their injuries.
The Sun Also Rises presents a character who has spent a long time wrestling with that question, and although he can’t deny what he’s lost, he eventually finds a way to be at peace with his situation. This book will remind you of the resilience many patients are called on to show in the face of difficult circumstances.
Trojan Women (Euripides)
If you’re looking for a change of pace, consider this 415 BC play set at the end of the Trojan War by the Greek playwright Euripides. Ancient Greek literature was ahead of its time in its portrayal of the aftereffects of trauma on men who had seen battle, but Trojan Women is unique in that all the main characters are female. The protagonists have seen their city sacked and their husbands slaughtered, and now they’re forced to wait for the ships that will carry them to Greece as slaves. The play consists almost entirely of dialogue among these women, but their descriptions of what they’ve been through and their fears for the future are more captivating than seeing those events play out first-hand.
Several written translations of Trojan Women are available, but you can also check out YouTube or other streaming platforms to find recordings of staged performances. If you like what you see, Euripides’ original has inspired multiple adaptations dealing with modern events, including works that allude to 9/11, Hiroshima, and the Holocaust. These works may not be very uplifting, but they’ll definitely increase your understanding of how trauma can affect survivors.
Repatriated (Adriaan van Dis)
Originally published in Dutch as Familieziek (Family-sick), this book describes one family’s struggle to adapt to life in the Netherlands after leaving Indonesia, which declared its independence following World War II. For many Dutch families at the time, Indonesia (known as the Dutch East Indies during its colonial period) was both their homeland and the site of extreme suffering and trauma during the war, when many Dutch citizens were incarcerated in Japanese internment camps.
The family at the center of Repatriated is no exception. The protagonist, the family’s only son, was born in Indonesia and is unenthusiastic about his new life in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, his parents and sisters react to the trauma they’ve gone through in very different ways. His mother and sisters repress their memories of the camps and rarely speak about their wartime experiences. The boy’s father, on the other hand, becomes obsessed with the war in general and the atom bomb in particular. Eventually, the boy comes to share his father’s obsession, even though he himself has no real memory of the war.
None of the family members are given names, emphasizing the universality of trauma in postwar Europe. The fact that they’re identified instead by their family relationships (“first sister”; “middle sister”) also draws attention to the ways in which the father’s obsession negatively affects every member of the household. Although he eventually promises to change his behavior after being institutionalized, the damage to the boy has already been done, and the cycle of intergenerational trauma is set to continue.
Repatriated is a fascinating look at how limited our understanding of mental health was just seventy years ago. Beyond that, the theme of intergenerational trauma is one that will be relevant throughout your career as a doctor. Particularly in a time when many people in the U.S. and around the world are discussing the harmful effects of racism, it’s crucial to be aware that patients’ problems might originate in trauma that’s been inherited from their parents or more distant ancestors.
The Imaginary Invalid (Molière)
This comedy-ballet, which was originally published in French as Le malade imaginaire, premiered in 1673, but it’s just as funny today as it was then. The plot is centered on Argan, an elderly man who is a severe hypochondriac. Sick of paying high medical bills, Argan concocts a plan to marry off his daughter, Angélique, to a doctor’s son, hoping that this will secure free medical care for himself. Of course, Angélique has different ideas, and the result is a comedic sequence of deception and miscommunication.
Although this play is a comedy, modern readers might raise their eyebrows at a few points. For instance, one doctor, monsieur Diaforious, claims that he prefers to treat common people because they can’t hold him accountable for his actions. According to him, the rich are harder to treat because they actually expect to be cured in exchange for their money. Throughout the play, the medical establishment is shown to be full of swindlers and frauds who have little actual knowledge of how to cure people. You can enjoy the play without looking too hard for modern parallels of Molière’s criticisms, but those connections are certainly there if you read with a critical mindset.
A Father’s Affair (Karel Glastra van Loon)
This is another book by a Dutch author (it was first published as De passievrucht, or The Passionfruit), but the setting is very different from that in Repatriated. Although Van Loon’s book also deals primarily with the relationship between a father (Armin) and his son (Bo), the story opens with Armin receiving a life-changing diagnosis. After he seeks infertility counseling, his doctor tells him that he has Klinefelter syndrome, a genetic disorder in which patients are phenotypically male but have XXY chromosomes. Crucially, they’re also born infertile, meaning that Armin’s 13-year-old son, Bo, cannot be his biological child.
The rest of the book combines Armin’s post-diagnosis storyline with flashbacks to his first marriage, juxtaposing his happiness with his first wife, Monika, with his later realization that she must have been unfaithful to him. To make matters worse, Monika passed away several years before Armin’s diagnosis, meaning that his grief for her is now complicated by his desire to find out who Bo’s biological father was.
Despite its central themes of grief and betrayal, A Father’s Affair has uplifting moments as well. It’s also engagingly written; you’ll find yourself just as dedicated as Armin to discovering the truth. Still, as a medical student, it’s hard not to envision yourself in the role of Armin’s doctor in the first chapter. In the hospital, you’ll often witness patients getting difficult news, but the true impact it has on them is hard to imagine if you’re not in their shoes. A Father’s Affair, though entirely fictional, provides some insight into how one appointment can change a patient’s life permanently.
In the same way that your patients’ lives continue after they leave the hospital, yours should too. Whether you read all the books on this list or just one — or whether this article inspires you to make a reading list of your own — remember to leave time for your non-medical hobbies whenever you can. Squeezing personal time into your schedule may seem like a tall order, but maintaining a work-life balance can help you relate to your patients and, in turn, make you a more compassionate doctor.