What I've Read: The Short List

This is not an exhaustive list by far, but it’s one to get you started. These are books that I’ve read as part of my courses in Narrative Medicine that I highly recommend. I have a separate running list of books I’d like to get through in my free time so stay tuned for what I’m reading over my winter break.

Click through to be linked to the Amazon page!

Memoirs

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying | Nina Riggs

This is one of the most beautifully witty, endearing, heart-wrenching memoirs I read this semester. Nina Riggs is a poet by trade and a descendent of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She documents her journey with being diagnosed with breast cancer in a page-turning read so beautifully written that you get sucked right into her world.

When Breath Becomes Air | Paul Kalanithi

This is the second time I read this book in class, and having removed myself temporarily from medical training, I read it in a different light. We read this book in conjunction with Riggs, and paired side by side to her poetic rendering of her disease Kalanithi is written very medical. This is a wonderful read for anyone who is in medicine, or wanting to go into medicine, as he delves more deeply into transitioning from being doctor to patient. You get more of the turmoil that comes with having medical knowledge of the disease process occurring within you. It is written as if time is running out, hurried and passionately. And then it simply does.

Fiction

The Heart | Maylis de Kerangal

This is the book I have been recommending to everyone who asks me to name the most memorable books I’ve read. It may not be fitting to everyone — sentences oftentimes are pages long in this book, but the way it is written reads like a stream of conscious poetry. The entire book takes place in twenty-four hours but it’s so drawn out that it is as if time has stopped to allow the lives of the characters to live and breath between its pages. It’s the story of a boy who dies, and a woman who gets a chance at a new life, and everything in between, and if you’re one to enjoy beautiful language there’s a bit of everything in it. There’s medicine, there’s humanity, there’s grief, loss, passion, triumph, love, patience, tenderness. It has profoundly changed my writing style in some ways, and it’s a book I know I will read and reread over and over.

The Plague | Albert Camus

Albert Camus is a classic author, of Algerian descent, who I have always heard of, but have never actually picked up to read. My professor was incredibly excited when she found out I was Algerian (in fact, all of Columbia is incredibly excited to find out I’m Algerian) and she kept hinting to this book all semester. It was one of the last books we read, but became one of my favorites. It is the story of a town in Oran, Algeria that contracts plague, and the doctor responsible of curing them. It is beautifully written (see a trend here?) and includes a diverse cast of characters that speak to so many parts of the human condition and beautifully renders resilience. It is heart-wrenching in many ways and doesn’t give you the happy ending you expect in books (I was crying the last couple of pages), but it is filled with so many genuine truths of the type of people we are, or become, when disaster strikes.

Beloved | Toni Morrison

My heart, my heart, my heart. Beloved is the story of slavery and freedom, of motherhood, of love, and loss. It is a story of resilience and suffering and torture and living with the past, the present, and the future. It is beautifully written and at times painful to hold in your hands, but it’s an important book to read.

Never Let Me Go | Kazuo Ishiguro

Because every list needs a dystopic future novel that speaks to modern times and warns us all of the future to come if we don’t shape up in the present. This one is confusing when you start, but bear with it, and continue, because the way the story unfolds will haunt you and shock you, suck you right in only to pull your hair out, and make you feel for a coming of age story that tugs at every heart string you have.

Non-Fiction

Between the World and Me | Ta-Nehisi Coates

I have always heard that this book needs to be required readings in our high-schools. It does. It one-hundred percent does. Written as a letter to his son, Coates discusses what it means to be a Black body in America. It is very nihilistic at times, and paints a very grim picture of America, but these are personal truths of one of the most prolific writers to discuss modern-day race in America. Coates journeys through his coming of age and what he learned about living in his body, the history contained in this nation, and his struggle with finding meaning and purpose through it all. For my Arabs out there, particularly my North Africans, who are by definition, Africans, who have rejected their African heritage to appease “whiteness” in America, Coates describes us as the “new people”, those who were something before they were “white”, but have chosen to be “white” because of the privilege this country contains. Read this book. Initiate the very difficult conversations. Educate yourself. This is important now, more than ever.

Letters to a Young Poet | Rainer Maria Rilke

This is a small collection of ten letters written that speak to the artist within all of us. Rilke is a poet, who writes letters to an aspiring poet, and drops wisdoms like nobody else. If you’re in a creative rut, or looking to be inspired, this is a wonderful small collection to have at your bedside.

On Photography | Susan Sontag

If you’re interested in photography and want to read a scathing history and rebuke of it, this is the book for you. Sontag dismantles photography, raises it up, questions the use of it, and makes you truly consider photography as an art and as a mass-media tool. Read her book and then drop her gems at your next photowalk.

Illness as Metaphors & AIDS and Its Metaphors | Susan Sontag

And Sontag appears again! Sontag was diagnosed with breast cancer when she wrote this book, in typical scathing fashion she criticizes our use of metaphors when it comes to describing illness. She places it in historical context, mainly focusing on TB and Cancer and then in the second half of the book starts talking about the AIDS epidemic. She explains why certain metaphors we associate with illness have persisted over time and will make you rethink any words you’ve ever written or said.

The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics | Arthur W. Frank

This book is one of the more theoretical one in the list. Frank, also diagnosed with cancer, dedicated majority of his life’s work to describing how we tell stories of illness and used narrative analysis as a way to cope with his own illness. He breaks illness storytelling down to three main categories of narration: restitution, chaos, and quest. This highly intriguing book made me contemplate on the ways I’ve told stories in the past, and have profoundly changed the ways I will tell stories in the future.