The best books on medicine in the trenches

Who am I?

As the daughter of a surgeon and as a surgeon myself, medicine is in my blood. I understand that a job in medicine is never just a job. It’s a world filled with human beings in need of help, often in dire need. And the human connections that fulfill that need fuel the richest stories imaginable. That’s why there will always be a popular television series with a medical theme. It’s the same with books: the reservoir of compelling medical narratives is wide and deep. But tapping into this reservoir requires a certain skill. The writers I highlight here have this skill in spades. Enjoy!

I wrote...

Another Day in the Frontal Lobe: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life on the Inside

By Katrina Firlik,

Book cover of Another Day in the Frontal Lobe: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life on the Inside

What is my book about?

Katrina Firlik is a neurosurgeon, one of only two hundred or so women among the alpha males who dominate this high-pressure, high-prestige medical specialty. She is also a superbly gifted writer–witty, insightful, at once deeply humane, and refreshingly wry. In this narrative, she draws on this rare combination to create a neurosurgeon’s Kitchen Confidential–a unique insider’s memoir of a fascinating profession.

Neurosurgeons are renowned for their big egos and aggressive self-confidence, and Dr. Firlik confirms that timidity is indeed rare in the field. “They’re the kids who never lost at musical chairs,” she writes. A brain surgeon is not only a highly trained scientist and clinician but also a mechanic who of necessity develops an intimate, hands-on familiarity with the gray matter inside our skulls. It’s the balance between cutting-edge medical technology and manual dexterity, between instinct and expertise, that is so appealing–and so difficult to master.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales

Why did I love this book?

Oliver Sacks is a legend, a physician-writer like no other. I could recommend any of his books, but An Anthropologist on Mars is a fun place to start. It’s a collection of seven narratives about patients with a diversity of neurological conditions. Most notable, though, are Sacks’ methods, akin to an anthropologist engaging in field research. He explains, “The exploration of deeply altered selves and worlds is not one that can be fully made in a consulting room or office…With this in mind, I have taken off my white coat, deserted, by and large, the hospitals where I have spent the last twenty-five years, to explore my subjects’ lives as they live in the real world…”.

By Oliver Sacks,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked An Anthropologist on Mars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As with his previous bestseller, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, in An Anthropologist on Mars Oliver Sacks uses case studies to illustrate the myriad ways in which neurological conditions can affect our sense of self, our experience of the world, and how we relate to those around us.

Writing with his trademark blend of scientific rigour and human compassion, he describes patients such as the colour-blind painter or the surgeon with compulsive tics that disappear in the operating theatre; patients for whom disorientation and alienation - but also adaptation - are inescapable facts of life.


Letters to a Young Doctor

By Richard Selzer,

Book cover of Letters to a Young Doctor

Why did I love this book?

Richard Selzer is perhaps my favorite surgeon-author. As a college student reading his beautiful—and sometimes ornate bordering on romantic—writing, I enjoyed having a glimpse into not only what a surgeon does but, more importantly, what a surgeon feels. Start by reading the first story in this collection, “Imelda,” about a young girl in Honduras with a cleft lip and palate. It gives me chills every time. If you think surgeons are unfeeling, read any of Selzer’s stories and think again. They are like love letters to the profession.

By Richard Selzer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Letters to a Young Doctor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Autobiographical reflections and parables from the noted surgeon and author--in turn grimly humorous, painful, and inspirational--articulate the lessons to be learned during an internship in surgery.

Book cover of This Won't Hurt a Bit: (And Other White Lies): My Education in Medicine and Motherhood

Why did I love this book?

There are plenty of books out there about the experience of going through a medical education and training but I found Michelle Au’s account to be particularly funny and insightful. It also focuses on a most important angle: becoming not only a physician but also a parent. Dr. Au had her first child early on during her residency in anesthesiology at Columbia. I have followed Dr. Au’s career with interest as she recently became a state senator in Georgia while her family has grown to three children. She is proof that a medical background combined with an ability to communicate well can be a powerful combination.

By Michelle Au, MD,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked This Won't Hurt a Bit as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Michelle Au started medical school armed only with a surfeit of idealism, a handful of old 'ER' episodes to reference, and some vague notion about 'helping people'. This is the story of how she grew up and became a real doctor.
Through her years in medical training, she also attempts to maintain a life outside the hospital as she and her resident husband decide to have a baby. A new mother struggling to balance long days and nights in the hospital with her 'real' life, Au finds herself in the classic struggle of working motherhood, trying to do two equally…

Book cover of Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery

Why did I love this book?

Henry Marsh, similar to Richard Selzer, is another rare example of a senior surgeon with an amazing ability to recount both the outer and inner life of a surgeon. Marsh is a British neurosurgeon with a long career full of remarkable stories, and Do No Harm focuses a lens in particular on what can go wrong, along with the physical and emotional repercussions. It’s a very honest and fascinating narrative that should be required reading for all medical students, not only for those contemplating neurosurgery.

By Henry Marsh,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Do No Harm as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


* * * * *

What is it like to be a brain surgeon?

How does it feel to hold someone's life in your hands, to cut through the stuff that creates thought, feeling and reason?

How do you live with the consequences when it all goes wrong?

DO NO HARM offers an unforgettable insight into the highs and lows of a life dedicated to operating on the human brain, in all its exquisite complexity. With astonishing candour and compassion, Henry Marsh reveals the exhilarating drama of surgery, the chaos and confusion of a busy…

Book cover of A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic's Wild Ride to the Edge and Back

Why did I love this book?

When people credit doctors for “saving a life” in an emergency, they sometimes overlook the role that EMTs, or paramedics, play in that great save. After Kevin Hazzard’s book, you’ll realize just how important they are to the healthcare equation. His book is the first I had ever read that was written by a paramedic, and his account is both refreshing and disturbing. He is insanely skilled at describing the details. And, along with the best of the medical nonfiction genre, he artfully blends what is most meaningful, terrifying, and humorous about the profession. It’s a fun one.

By Kevin Hazzard,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Thousand Naked Strangers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A former paramedic’s visceral, poignant, and mordantly funny account of a decade spent on Atlanta’s mean streets saving lives and connecting with the drama and occasional beauty that lies inside catastrophe.

In the aftermath of 9/11 Kevin Hazzard felt that something was missing from his life—his days were too safe, too routine. A failed salesman turned local reporter, he wanted to test himself, see how he might respond to pressure and danger. He signed up for emergency medical training and became, at age twenty-six, a newly minted EMT running calls in the worst sections of Atlanta. His life entered a…

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