When Breath Becomes Air
In this posthumously published memoir, Paul Kalanithi chronicles his life in medicine. Initially, that encompasses the process of learning to be a doctor and beginning to practice medicine; later, it involves coming to terms with his own mortality after being diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. As a skilled writer with an abundance of medical knowledge, Kalanithi was qualified to approach this subject from multiple angles, which he did, and powerfully.
Thinking in Pictures
Temple Grandin has been the subject of other authors’ work, including Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars; she was also played by Claire Danes in an award-winning biopic. In her memoir, she writes about her autism, integrating her lived experiences with her abundance of scientific knowledge as an expert in the field of animal science.
Girl in the Dark
In her oft-discussed memoir, Anna Lyndsey examines the condition that has caused her to live her life with a unique constraint: an extreme physical sensitivity to light, even in the smallest amounts. As the title suggests, Girl in the Dark chronicles her experience living in darkness, and offers readers a window to a different way of experiencing the world.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
In 1995, editor and writer Jean-Dominique Bauby had a massive stroke. As a result, he was only able to communicate by blinking his eye. Even so, he composed this memoir, which describes the effects of his condition and the means by which he coped with it, via a complex means of transcription. Bauby’s memoir was adapted for film in 2007.
The Year of Magical Thinking
Joan Didion’s acclaimed memoir chronicles the year after her husband’s sudden death. At the same time she was dealing with the aftermath of that devastating event, Didion’s daughter also began experiencing serious medical issues, which turned tragic. Her following book, Blue Nights, further explored many of the same subjects and themes.
Memoirs detailing the author’s lived experience with an illness, the aftermath of an accident, or some other physical condition have long been compelling to audiences. Some books offer readers insights into how they might grapple with similar situations, from the management of chronic conditions to coming to terms with a terminal diagnosis. Others can be fascinating for the ways in which they explore life in a situation that readers are unlikely to ever experience. And still others offer an implicit contrast between the medical treatments of a bygone time and the more advanced methodology of the present day.
A number of authors have written powerful books regarding matters of illness, and many more will join them, including Esmé Weijun Wang (The Collected Schizophrenias) and Porochista Khakpour (Sick), to cite two highly anticipated examples. Here’s a look at five books exploring questions of medicine, treatment, and the body.
Featured Image: Jennifer N. R. Smith