Have You Read Any Good Books About Illness Lately?

Time spent on book: 6 hours
What I did: Gods, Games, and Globalization!
Grade for the day: B+

I need some help. Syllabus help.

Next spring, I will be teaching a course called "Compassionate Caregiving." It's about the "human side" of illness. What does it feel like to receive a diagnosis, etc...

Saint Francis has an assortment of future health care professionals. It's kinda our thing. So my hope is to get them thinking about the broader implications of what they will be doing. Our bodies are meaningful and sacred to us and to others. When our bodies break down, so too do the networks of relationships that define us.

I have taught this before but I'm experimenting with using literature and film to frame our discussions. As I did with my course on post-apocalyptic literature, there will be student-led discussions, along with weekly blog posts, Wikis for research gathering, and essays/creative projects.

I will probably assign 5 or 6 books--novels and memoirs. These need to be both insightful and readable. Stuff that undergrads can wrap their heads around and discuss.

So here's what I have... PLEASE share any suggestions that you might have, either about these or ones that you have read and enjoyed.

Books that I am pretty certain that I'm using 

Arthur Frank, At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness. I love this book and students have responded well to it. I suspect that I will open with it. Frank is a medical sociologist who himself had a heart attack and cancer in his late-30s. So this is one part memoir and one part intelligent analysis. Check out Martin Marty's review.

Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes AirI read this while on vacation this summer, mostly in one sitting. It's a book that rips your heart out, both because of the tragedy of his death and because his insights hit at the core of what it means to live and die. His wife writes the afterword. I was a mess after reading it.

Books that I am considering, but...

Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of DarknessI read this when I was a graduate student in Florida. At the time, I was having all sorts of seizure issues, so this book really struck a chord. There have been a few times when I have assigned this book to individual students who did a directed readings course with me. But I have never used it in a full class. My wife tells me that it rambles a bit too much. Also, some religious studies people would disown me for having her on my syllabus. Wait, maybe that's a reason to include it? Anyway... not sure about this one.

Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two CulturesAlso read this in my Florida days. And also has an epilepsy connection. I like that this book gives a cross-cultural perspective. But again, my wife assures me that it's too long.

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. One of the books is going to deal with mental illness. This would fit into that category. But more than that, I like how this gets us thinking about power and medicine--how the structures that we create exert influence over the people that they treat. I might just go with the film instead of the novel. But I like what this has to offer.

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Will I have my doctorate revoked for having not read this? I have a copy and plan to read it soon. I worry about "classics" like this. Can students handle something like this on their own, or with limited guidance? Or does this require lectures and stuff?

Books that have been suggested, or that look interesting... 

Liana Maeby, South on Highland. Addiction

Philip Connors, All the Wrong Places. Grief

Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Blinking

Elissa Washuta, My Body Is a Book of Rules. Mental illness

Susannah Cahalan, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. Temporary insanity?

Bill Scheft, Everything Hurts. Pain

Wendelin Van Draanen, The Running Dream. Disability

Lisa Genova. Inside the O'Briens. Huntington’s disease

Still looking for.... 

Something that deals with race and/or ethnicity. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks would be an obvious choice here, but this is our first-year reading this year.

Something that deals with poverty and/or class. I suppose Mountains Beyond Mountains could work here. But I don't know.

Any sort of trauma. I think that many of the novels/memoirs that I have listed deal with this. The Things They Carried  perhaps?


OK, so if you have suggestions, please share!


  1. Sarah Mancuso's Two Kinds of Decay deals with her battle with a rare neurological disease. Very readable and deals with concepts related to memory and one's perspective as it changes over time.

  2. I forgot to mention that your list already looks very impressive!

  3. Thanks for the suggestion! This looks terrific--I'll check it out!


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