As a reviewer of many disability- , illness and care-giving related novels, as well as a medical doctor during the daytime, the number one request for a topic to cover has been "readable medical non-fiction". It took me far longer than I'd hoped to compile this list, as I frankly still don't feel completely confident that I've read enough to make a fair selection. That being said, from the top of my head, I can already give you a few of my personal favourite non-fiction books with medical themes, that impacted my journey as both a patient, caregiver and medical professional.
For this list, I picked only non-fiction works aimed at a general audience (no medical textbooks or "occupational literature". I've allowed a combination of memoirs, informative non-fiction and essay collections, most of which are written from an own voice perspective.
Without further ado, let's get into my personal favourite Non-Fiction books on medically related subjects.
1. When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi A memoir by a succesful neurosurgeon, after he's diagnosed with terminal lungcancer at a young age. I loved and related to, not only his description of his
journey with his own health, but especially the way it changed his views on
practicing medicine as a whole. Finished and published posthumously by his wife (and care-giver), be sure to keep your tissues ready when reading her afterword...
At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade's worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi's transformation from a naïve medical student "possessed," as he wrote, "by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life" into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.
What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.
The humourously retelling of the diaries of a junior doctor hit home to my personal experience in the field in many ways. It made me laugh, and made me deeply sad in the span of just a few pages. Basically, the extremes the that working in the medical field in reality tends to come with.
Welcome to the life of a junior doctor: 97-hour weeks, life and death decisions, a constant tsunami of bodily fluids, and the hospital parking meter earns more than you. Scribbled in secret after endless days, sleepless nights and missed weekends, Adam Kay's This is Going to Hurt provides a no-holds-barred account of his time on the NHS front line. Hilarious, horrifying and heartbreaking, this diary is everything you wanted to know – and more than a few things you didn't – about life on and off the hospital ward.
3. Mans Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl Although this isn't a self-help-book by any stretch of the imagination, it has helped me and many others in dealing with trauma, whilst also introducing us to one of the foundational pillars of psychiatry. The book is split in half; the first being a personal account of Viktor Frankls experiences of being a prisoner and doctor in a concentrationcamp during WWII, and the second being an introduction into the main principles of logotherapy. Both were equally impactful and the lifelessons Frankl so succinctly describes are ones I've often taken to heart.
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl's memoir has riveted generations of readers with its descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. Based on his own experience and the stories of his patients, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. At the heart of his theory, known as logotherapy, is a conviction that the primary human drive is not pleasure but the pursuit of what we find meaningful. Man's Search for Meaning has become one of the most influential books in America; it continues to inspire us all to find significance in the very act of living.
4. Some of Us Just Fall – Polly Atkin A memoir that beautifully integrates nature-writing with the author's experiences with her body and health, in relation to two chronic illnesses: Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and Hemochromatosis. It’s about the artificial border between health and illness and the shadowland those with chronic or incurable conditions inhabit. It’s about falling “in between” diagnoses, when you have not one, but two condition at a young age. It’s about genetics, family, history, nature, bodies and more.
After years of unexplained health problems, Polly Atkin's perception of her body was rendered fluid and disjointed. When she was finally diagnosed with two chronic conditions in her thirties, she began to piece together what had been happening to her - all the misdiagnoses, the fractures, the dislocations, the bone-crushing exhaustion, the not being believed.
Some of Us Just Fall combines memoir, pathography and nature writing to trace a fascinating journey through illness, a journey which led Polly to her current home in the Lake District, where outdoor swimming is purported to cure all, and where every day she turns to the natural world to help tame her illness. Polly delves into the history of her two genetic conditions, uncovering how these illnesses were managed (or not) in times gone by and exploring how best to plan for her own future.
From medical misogyny and gaslighting, to the illusion of 'the nature cure', this essential, beautiful and deeply personal book examines how we deal with bodies that diverge from the norm, and why this urgently needs to change.
This is not a book about getting better. This is a book about living better with illness.
5. Sitting Pretty – Rebekah Taussig Although we don't share our disability, the experiences Taussig describes in this memoir are universal enough to people struggling to fit in a world that wasn't always made with them in mind, that I found myself tearing up in recognition more than ones.
Smart, insightful, full of character, and often hitting me personally right where it hurt: Rebekah Taussig has written the best piece of disability non-fiction I've read in a long time. Honourable mention to A Face for Picasso by Ariel Henley, which did very similar things and which I loved almost as much.
Growing up as a paralyzed girl during the 90s and early 2000s, Rebekah Taussig only saw disability depicted as something monstrous (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), inspirational (Helen Keller), or angelic (Forrest Gump). None of this felt right; and as she got older, she longed for more stories that allowed disability to be complex and ordinary, uncomfortable and fine, painful and fulfilling.
Writing about the rhythms and textures of what it means to live in a body that doesn’t fit, Rebekah reflects on everything from the complications of kindness and charity, living both independently and dependently, experiencing intimacy, and how the pervasiveness of ableism in our everyday media directly translates to everyday life.
Yet another hybrid of disability-memoir and essays. This one makes my list for the sheer quality of the writing, allusions and metaphors employed. It's one of the most beautifully written text I've read in years, period, let alone on this topic. I cannot wait to read the authors fiction debut that is set for release later this year.
How do you tell the story of life that is no one thing? How do you tell the story of a life in a body, as it goes through sickness, health, motherhood? And how do you tell that story when you are not just a woman but a woman in Ireland? In these powerful and daring essays, Sinead Gleeson does that very thing. In doing so she delves into a range of subjects: art, illness, ghosts, grief, and our very ways of seeing. In writing that is in tradition of some of our finest writers such as Olivia Laing, Maggie O'Farrell, and Maggie Nelson, and yet still in her own spirited, warm voice, Gleeson takes us on a journey that is both personal and yet universal in its resonance.
How does one write a comprehensive "summary" of the history, technicalities ánd human impact of something so complex and hetrogeneous as cancer? The answer apparently is: just like this. I'm using this entry as an umbrella-spot for all of Mukherjee's works, as after cancer, he also went on to tackle cell biology in The Song of The Cell and Genetics in The Gene: an Intimate History
Physician, researcher, and award-winning science writer, Siddhartha Mukherjee examines cancer with a cellular biologist’s precision, a historian’s perspective, and a biographer’s passion. The result is an astonishingly lucid and eloquent chronicle of a disease humans have lived with - and perished from - for more than five thousand years.
The story of cancer is a story of human ingenuity, resilience, and perseverance, but also of hubris, paternalism, and misperception. Mukherjee recounts centuries of discoveries, setbacks, victories, and deaths, told through the eyes of his predecessors and peers, training their wits against an infinitely resourceful adversary that, just three decades ago, was thought to be easily vanquished in an all-out “war against cancer.”
Combining the personal lifestory of an unsung heroine of medicine, with the history of cancer-research, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks isn't just a fascinating and emotional tale, but an essential one for anyone in the medical (research-)field.
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her enslaved ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.
Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.
Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — a land of wooden quarters for enslaved people, faith healings, and voodoo — to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.
Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family — past and present — is inextricably connected to the history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.
9. Being Mortal: On Medicine and What Matters in the End - Atul Gawande Palliative care is one of the medical topics that is closest to my heart, so I had to include at least one book that deals with this topic here. Although there are quite a few contenders, I selected Being Mortal, as it's one of the most accesible ones out there. Considering the importance of breaking the taboo surrounding death, dying and palliation; that alone made it worth a mention.
Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming birth, injury, and infectious disease from harrowing to manageable. But in the inevitable condition of aging and death, the goals of medicine seem too frequently to run counter to the interest of the human spirit. Nursing homes, preoccupied with safety, pin patients into railed beds and wheelchairs. Hospitals isolate the dying, checking for vital signs long after the goals of cure have become moot. Doctors, committed to extending life, continue to carry out devastating procedures that in the end extend suffering.
Gawande, a practicing surgeon, addresses his profession's ultimate limitation, arguing that quality of life is the desired goal for patients and families. Gawande offers examples of freer, more socially fulfilling models for assisting the infirm and dependent elderly, and he explores the varieties of hospice care to demonstrate that a person's last weeks or months may be rich and dignified.
Last on my list, because it's the book I enjoyed least whilst reading it. Most of that was due to how close to home this hit. Between Two Kingdoms is a memoir covering the author's experience as a young adult with cancer and the "in-between-lands" that follow it. Unlike the 9 previous titles, it's not a book that I like to reread regularly (I might not ever), but it's probably the one I'd gift you, if I wanted you to understand the "young-and-cancer" experience.
It started with an itch - first on her feet, then up her legs, like 1,000 invisible mosquito bites. Next came the exhaustion, and the six-hour naps that only deepened her fatigue. Then a trip to the doctor and, a few weeks shy of her 23rd birthday, a diagnosis: leukemia, with a 35 percent chance of survival. Just like that, the life she had imagined for herself had gone up in flames. By the time Jaouad flew home to New York, she had lost her job, her apartment, and her independence. She would spend much of the next four years in a hospital bed, fighting for her life and chronicling the saga in a column for The New York Times.
When Jaouad finally walked out of the cancer ward - after three and a half years of chemo, a clinical trial, and a bone marrow transplant - she was, according to the doctors, cured. But as she would soon learn, a cure is not where the work of healing ends; it’s where it begins. She had spent the past 1,500 days in desperate pursuit of one goal - to survive. And now that she’d done so, she realized that she had no idea how to live.
How would she reenter the world and live again? How could she reclaim what had been lost? Jaouad embarked - with her new best friend, Oscar, a scruffy terrier mutt - on a 100-day, 15,000-mile road trip across the country. She set out to meet some of the strangers who had written to her during her years in the hospital: a teenage girl in Florida also recovering from cancer; a teacher in California grieving the death of her son; a death-row inmate in Texas who’d spent his own years confined to a room. What she learned on this trip is that the divide between sick and well is porous, that the vast majority of us will travel back and forth between these realms throughout our lives. Between Two Kingdoms is a profound chronicle of survivorship and a fierce, tender, and inspiring exploration of what it means to begin again.
Are you missing your personal favourite, that you think I might love too, on this list: feel free to send me a recommendation. Or check below, if maybe, the book is already on my TBR and due for a reading soon.
Medical Non-Fiction on my TBR/Radar: