The best books about surgery

1 authors have picked their favorite books about surgery and why they recommend each book.

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Letters to a Young Doctor

By Richard Selzer,

Book cover of Letters to a Young Doctor

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.


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.

Patricia's Vision

By Michelle Lord, Alleanna Harris (illustrator),

Book cover of Patricia's Vision: The Doctor Who Saved Sight

Having experienced several eye operations, I really connected with this story about a female African American ophthalmologist who pioneered laser surgery and received a patent for the ingenious device used to perform the delicate procedure of removing cataracts. An important book on so many layers, Patricia's Vision is a mirror for children in marginalized groups to see themselves as successful professionals, a window for other children to observe a diverse person in the role of an inventor and a doctor, and a sliding glass door for all to envision their own endless possibilities. The story also shows how young Patricia Bath grew up with hopes and dreams, and plans of what might be – and it will empower young readers today to build their dreams into reality.


Who am I?

As a child, I loved stories about people who accomplished extraordinary things – I read our set of encyclopedias from cover to cover. Those first forays into research stood me in good stead when I started writing nonfiction picture books about people who believed that nothing is impossible if you can imagine it – people like Robert Goddard who climbed a cherry tree when he was 13 and looked at the moon and decided he was going to build a vehicle that could take people there. As a teacher and as a parent, I read picture books on a daily basis, and as a writer for children, I love sparking the curiosity of young readers.


I wrote...

From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves

By Vivian Kirkfield, Gilbert Ford (illustrator),

Book cover of From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves

What is my book about?

In a time when people believed flying was impossible, the Montgolfier brothers proved that the sky wasn’t the limit. When most thought horseback was the only way to race, Bertha and Karl Benz fired up their engines. From the invention of the bicycle to the first liquid-fuel propelled rocket, this collective biography tells the stories of the experiments, failures, and successes of visionaries who changed the way the world moves and sparks the curiosity of young children to think about what they might invent to make the world a better place.

Do No Harm

By Henry Marsh,

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

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.


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.

Flowers For Algernon

By Daniel Keyes,

Book cover of Flowers For Algernon

Those who haven’t read either the short story, or novel, are missing out. This is the rags-to-riches-to-rags story of Charlie Gordon, a mentally retarded janitor. When Charlie gets tested by two scientists, he meets Algernon, a mouse that was experimented upon to increase his intelligence. Initially, Charlie is jealous of how smart Algernon is, but when the same procedure is performed on him, his own IQ triples.

Unfortunately for Charlie, his newfound intelligence brings him more complications than happiness. There are many themes at play here; it is a Frankenstein story, and more. Charlie foresees his own future in Algernon’s; he watches the wundermaus devolve back to being a plain old mouse, and then die. Charlie buries Algernon, along with his own short-lived dreams, knowing his newfound intelligence will soon abandon him.       


Who am I?

In almost all of my eighteen published novels, animals have played a central role. When my first novel (No Sign of Murder) was published, The NY Times gave it a standalone review with the headline, “Even the Gorilla is a Suspect.” My wife was working with gorillas when I wrote the book. In Multiple Wounds, I cribbed a real-life experience of a double-homicide in our neighborhood, with the only survivor being a cat. We adopted that cat, and I had my protagonist do the same in telling the circumstances of her story to the world. Because animals play a big part in my own life, I feel the need to incorporate them into my words.


I wrote...

Burning Man

By Alan Russell,

Book cover of Burning Man

What is my book about?

LAPD cop Michael Gideon and his K-9 partner Sirius became reluctant celebrities after capturing a notorious serial killer in the midst of an inferno, an encounter that leaves both man and dog with burns. Though Gideon escaped the fire, he's forced to revisit those flames in the form of his dreams. Fearful that knowledge of his PTSD will get him bounced from the force, Gideon keeps his condition secret from everyone save his faithful German shepherd, who's there to comfort him at night.

Gideon and Sirius are chosen to head up LAPD’s newly formed Special Cases Unit, and given charge over unusual, and out of the ordinary cases. It is a challenge for Gideon, especially with his PTSD. His burns may have healed, but the fire haunts him still.

Trauma

By James Cole,

Book cover of Trauma: My Life as an Emergency Surgeon

I found Trauma: My Life as an Emergency Surgeon when I was on a read-all-the-books-about-emergency-medicine kick. I had recently gotten my paramedic certification and was trying to learn all I could about the science of medicine. My brain does not do well with textbooks, so I gravitated towards memoirs.

Unfortunately, being a great doctor and being a great—or even good—writer, seldom go hand in hand. Most of the doctor memoirs I came across were as thrilling as an Anatomy and Physiology textbook.

Dr. Cole’s book was different. He’s a skilled writer and his experiences are exciting and varied.


Who am I?

I am a paramedic. I like being a medic. Not so much because of the science and medicine related to the job, but I like connecting with people. People from every walk of life. I like the chaos and unpredictability of the streets. The books on my list portray what it’s like to be out there. Not just war stories. But stories of humility and grace.  


I wrote...

Emergency Monster Squad

By Dave Horowitz,

Book cover of Emergency Monster Squad

What is my book about?

What is it like to ride on an ambulance? What’s the difference between a paramedic and an EMT? What exactly is “the Q-word?” and why shouldn’t I say it to an ambulance crew?

These questions and more are answered in Emergency Monster Squad, a kooky, fast-paced, children’s book by author/illustrator/paramedic, Dave Horowitz. 

Dietland

By Sarai Walker,

Book cover of Dietland

This book is a knockout, one that pushed me to see through our dangerous diet culture (and got me all fired up). After years of being judged and mocked as a fat woman, Plum is fixated on weight-loss surgery as the way to live a better life. But when she catches a young woman following her, Plum discovers an entire underground community of women living lives out of bounds, and a guerrilla group terrorizing predatory men. The story is propulsive and exciting, and it’s all fueled by righteous anger. The women Plum meet are full of rage at our broken world but also infused with beautiful compassion. Both can be true; both are often true.  The book has stuck with me for years, and I often return to it as a template for writing a killer story that centers and celebrates angry women.


Who am I?

I’m fascinated by angry, feral, primal women. In my book, ten stories feature these women, the ones doing the things we’re not supposed to do, thinking and feeling and saying the things we’re not supposed to. I think we’re beyond powerful when we embrace our anger, nourish and cultivate it, channel it. So I write about these women in the hopes that I’ll get a bit of their strength. The books in this list have inspired me as a writer and thrilled me as a reader.


I wrote...

Dig Me Out

By Amy Lee Lillard,

Book cover of Dig Me Out

What is my book about?

Dig Me Out is ten deeply absorbing stories about the women who won’t smile: angry, aching women, and women returning to base instincts, primal fears, and mythic power. Across past, present, and future, around the midwest and the world, these women demand we witness as they work to break through, to defy, to become. It won’t be pretty, and it won’t be safe, but it will be real.

Spanning genres, continents, and eras, Dig Me Out takes on misogyny and homophobia, societal and climatological violence, and the specter of our technologized future — all with a punk rock literary twist.

You Go First

By Erin Entrada Kelly,

Book cover of You Go First

I love books about smart and curious girls, and Charlotte, the main character of You Go First, fits the bill. She struggles with tricky middle-school friendships and her father’s declining health, but she keeps herself afloat emotionally by studying all sorts of interesting things, like sea creatures, wild animals, earthquakes, and geology. She maintains a collection of rock specimens on her dresser, and the sparkling hunks of Egyptian quartz, hematite, and feldspar remind her of her dream of studying minerals and gemstones at the base of a pyramid or volcano when she grows up. Charlotte is unapologetically herself, and her unwavering connection with the earth and its treasures is her saving grace during a very rough stretch.  


Who am I?

I live in Madison, Wisconsin, and when I’m not reading my way through a tall stack of library books, I love to exercise and explore the outdoors, particularly in the Northwoods and in the Driftless Area (Google it—it’s the coolest!). My debut novel, Crossing the Pressure Line, is about identifying the lifeboats that have the power to save us during turbulent times. One of my own personal lifeboats is nature. I spend time outdoors every single day, even when the temperature is below zero, because I find deep peace in breathing fresh air, using my muscles, and watching for signs of wildlife. 


I wrote...

Crossing the Pressure Line

By Laura Anne Bird,

Book cover of Crossing the Pressure Line

What is my book about?

My middle grade novel is about Clare Burch, a deeply reflective twelve-year-old who grieves the untimely loss of her grandfather, puts her self-confidence to the test, and learns how to listen to the courageous voice inside. It’s the perfect book for tween girls who love swimming, animals, fishing, art, and setting fierce goals for themselves. 

Crossing the Pressure Line celebrates a sense of wonder and reverence for the natural world, which I believe is essential in these times of cell phones, social media, and virtual everything. Go outside! Get dirty! Move your body! Sweat! You’ll experience a rush of endorphins while seriously recharging your battery.

Second Nature

By Jacquelyn Mitchard,

Book cover of Second Nature: A Love Story

I unabashedly admit to reading this fabulously fascinating novel at least five times. Set "a few years in the future," a remote young medical illustrator, Sicily Coyne, needs a new face. When the girlhood victim of a deadly church fire learns that her fiancé holds a deeply buried and devastating secret, Sicily is propelled to agree to receive the first-ever face transplant. Surgery not only restores her appearance, but transforms her into a gorgeous young woman, which sends her spiraling into deep depression. But Sicily's a survivor. She begins embracing a brave new world, ultimately finding an unexpected and by all accounts unsuitable new love, who gives her a gift she never would have expected. Mitchard, one of our finest women's fiction writers at the top of her game.


Who am I?

As you get to know the characters I create, you'll be imbued with a sense of hope and possibility–with the magic that can happen when someone pokes a toe out of her comfort zone and makes things happen. You'll relate to discrete characters, who like most women, desire and deserve true love, authentic relationships—whether they be friends, mothers, daughters, or loversand meaningful work. You'll care about their emotional hurts, the misunderstandings that cause them to stumble, and cheer them on as they make choices that ultimately lead them to create empowered, fulfilling lives. Hooking you from the first sentence, I'll ignite your brain's hardwired desire to learn what happens next. 


I wrote...

Topanga Canyon

By Elizabeth Sumner Wafler,

Book cover of Topanga Canyon

What is my book about?

Candy empire heiress Dare O'Day has never done a reckless thing in her life, or so her version 2.0 hippie, estranged daughter Caroline believes. When Dare is haplessly involved in a scandal that rocks her small-town Virginia world, she needs to get out of town fast. Acting on a hunch that it could be her last chance to forge an authentic relationship with her daughter, Dare and her one-eared rescue dog head for Caroline's intentional community "Crewtopia" in California.

Despite their differences, Dare and Caroline manage to confront a lifetime of family secrets and misunderstandings. Ultimately, the two learn that a loving and supportive relationship between mothers and daughters has the power to influence generations to come and is the strongest and most important bond of all.

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