The best books on learning to heal

Who am I?

I earned a Ph.D. in Modern Thought from Stanford and have been an award-winning professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies for over three decades. I've also lived with Crohn’s Disease for more than 50 years. At the intersection of these two experiences, I developed a therapeutic practice oriented towards those with chronic and life-threatening illnesses called Healing Counsel. As both a teacher and a counsellor, I ask people to reconsider the ways they make sense of their experiences. I try to assist people to open up new possibilities for healing, not only as individuals, but also as societies, maybe even as a species, or perhaps even as planetary beings.

I wrote...

On Learning to Heal: or, What Medicine Doesn't Know

By Ed Cohen,

Book cover of On Learning to Heal: or, What Medicine Doesn't Know

What is my book about?

At the age of 13, Ed Cohen was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune illness that inflamed his entire small intestine and that his doctors told him was incurable. For the next ten years, he lived on steroids and ingesting mass quantities of immunosuppressing drugs. Then at 23, complications from an undetected small bowel perforation led him to the brink of death. But after the emergency surgery that saved his life, something even more radical happened: he began to learn to heal. 

Cohen tries to understand why contemporary medicine no longer focuses on healing. Combining personal narrative, philosophical reflection, and medical history, On Learning to Heal considers the limits that modern medicine introduced when it transformed itself from an “art of healing” into “scientific medicine.”  

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal

Why did I love this book?

Accomplished physician, long-term survivor of Crohn’s Disease, and Boddhisatva, Rachel Remen was my first therapist and the first doctor to ever mention healing to me. 

She was one of my most profound teachers, and I owe her enormous debts of gratitude. In this international best-seller, she uses both her own stories and the stories of those with whom she has worked to inspire us to live as intensely as we can, no matter how well or ill we may be.

By Rachel Naomi Remen,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Kitchen Table Wisdom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"I recommend this book highly to everyone." --Deepak Chopra, M.D.

This special updated version of the New York Times-bestseller, Kitchen Table Wisdom, addresses the same spiritual issues that made the original a bestseller: suffering, meaning, love, faith, and miracles.

"Despite the awesome powers of technology, many of us still do not live very well," says Dr. Rachel Remen. "We may need to listen to one another's stories again." Dr. Remen, whose unique perspective on healing comes from her background as a physician, a professor of medicine, a therapist, and a long-term survivor of chronic illness, invites us to listen from…

Book cover of God's Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine

Why did I love this book?

A doctor, as well as a historian of medicine, Victoria Sweet embraces the potential for healing that most of modern medicine has forgotten. 

Working at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, the “last alms house in America,” Sweet’s clinical practice with some of the city’s most destitute and vulnerable patients challenged her to move beyond the frameworks that her medical training provided.

When as a historian, she discovered the work of Hildegarde of Bingen, a twelfth-century nun, writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, as well as a medical writer and practitioner, Sweet realized how much modern medicine still depends on encouraging our natural healing capacity to flourish. She reminds us that healing is our birthright and no matter how much medicine can support it, healing still belongs to us.

By Victoria Sweet,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked God's Hotel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Victoria Sweet's new book, SLOW MEDICINE, is on sale now!

For readers of Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, a medical “page-turner” that traces one doctor’s “remarkable journey to the essence of medicine” (The San Francisco Chronicle). 

San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital is the last almshouse in the country, a descendant of the Hôtel-Dieu (God’s hotel) that cared for the sick in the Middle Ages. Ballet dancers and rock musicians, professors and thieves—“anyone who had fallen, or, often, leapt, onto hard times” and needed extended medical care—ended up here. So did Victoria Sweet, who came for two months and stayed…

Book cover of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

Why did I love this book?

Braiding Sweetgrass already appears on many of these lists with good reason.

It’s an amazing book that combines Kimmerer’s passions as a botanist, a mother, and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Celebrating the natural wisdom of the plant and animal realms, Kimmerer teaches us to rethink our place in the world as living organisms who are also members of families, communities, and peoples.

Her expansive and healing perspective offers readers concrete and creative ways to inhabit our shared life worlds.  These are much-needed lessons for supporting all sentient beings in these troubling times.

By Robin Wall Kimmerer,

Why should I read it?

34 authors picked Braiding Sweetgrass as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Called the work of "a mesmerizing storyteller with deep compassion and memorable prose" (Publishers Weekly) and the book that, "anyone interested in natural history, botany, protecting nature, or Native American culture will love," by Library Journal, Braiding Sweetgrass is poised to be a classic of nature writing. As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer asks questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces indigenous teachings that consider plants and animals to be our oldest teachers. Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowledge together to take "us on a journey that is…

Book cover of And a Time to Die: How American Hospitals Shape the End of Life

Why did I love this book?

Many people imagine that healing and dying are antithetical. However, this is not necessarily so. Sometimes, in the right circumstances, death can be healing not just for the person whose life is ending but for those who love them. 

Unfortunately, American hospital care does not usually facilitate such graceful transitions.  Kaufman, a medical anthropologist, compiles case histories of end-of-life care in medical facilities in order to help us understand the complexities that face us in these contexts. Since most Americans now die in some kind of medical institution, this book should be required reading for everyone—before it happens to us.

By Sharon R. Kaufman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked And a Time to Die as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Over the past thirty years, the way Americans experience death has been dramatically altered. The advent of medical technology capable of sustaining life without restoring health has changed where, when, and how we die. In this revelatory study, medical anthropologist Sharon R. Kaufman examines the powerful center of those changes: the hospital, where most Americans die today. She deftly links the experiences of patients and families, the work of hospital staff, and the ramifications of institutional bureaucracy to show the invisible power of the hospital system in shaping death and our individual experience of it. In doing so, Kaufman also…

Book cover of At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness

Why did I love this book?

This classic text by medical sociologist Arthur Frank was written in the wake of two life-threatening events: a heart attack at age 39 and a cancer diagnosis a year later. 

Frank draws on both his scholarly and personal experiences to guide others who find themselves in similar circumstances. He helps us understand that when we place ourselves in medicine’s hands, we also subject ourselves to their ways of knowing. Their stories bleed into our stories, but they are never the same as our stories because what medicine knows as disease is not the same as what we experience as illness. 

Thus, Frank teaches us: “These two stories, the story of medicine taking the body as its territory and the story of learning to wonder at the body itself, can only be told together, because illness is both stories at once.”

By Arthur W Frank,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked At the Will of the Body as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A medical sociologist who has been seriously ill twice (heart attack and cancer) explores his experiences and examines what they taught him about how to live. An important resource for caregivers and patients.

In this deeply affecting memoir, Arthur W. Frank explores the events of illness from within: the transformation from person to patient, the pain, the wonder, and the ceremony of recovery.

To illuminate what illness can teach us about life, Frank draws upon his own encounters with serious illness—a heart attack at age thirty-nine and, a year later, a diagnosis of cancer.

In poignant and clear prose, he…

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