“Not all heroes wear capes.” That’s a phrase that people have been using for a while, though it’s really taken off with the current global situation. People are, very rightly, taking this time to celebrate doctors, nurses, hospital staff, grocery store workers, gas station attendants, and everyone else who’s still moving forward with their jobs to keep things going with the rest of us. (Hopefully, everyone will remember to stay appreciative after the crisis passes, too.)
All of this has inevitably steered my thought process, too, and I’ve found myself looking at a lot of medical fiction lately. In case you’re like me and want some recommendations to help you pass the time in quarantine, here are my Top 10 medical books (fiction and nonfiction). I thought about doing a list celebrating all of our essential workers, but I decided I’d rather keep the topic focused, and I haven’t really read a lot of works about these other jobs, anyway.
10. The Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian
This series of 20 ½ historical novels are about some ships in the navy, mostly during the Napoleonic wars. They’re centered around the officer Jack Aubrey and around Stephen Maturin, who’s primarily a doctor but also does some espionage work on the side. The loud, boisterous commander and the quiet, moody doctor are unlikely friends with little in common except their love of music, but they support each other through war and loss and all kinds of adventure.
There’s plenty of medicine worked into the series, since Dr. Maturin is a capable physician and there are plenty of illnesses and wounds to be tended. I’m putting this series lowest on the list because parts can be long-winded (lame attempt at boat pun!) or bogged down, especially the parts that talk about ships and sailing. This usually comes about when various seamen explain things to Maturin, who is a hopeless landlubber. It wasn’t nearly as bad as Moby Dick, for those of you who’ve read that particular work, but there were certainly naval passages that I glossed over or forgot immediately. If you want a more streamlined version, you can check out the movie adaptation Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, which combined plot points from a few of the books. If you want to start with the books, the first one of these was also called Master and Commander.
9. The Marrow of Tradition by Charles W. Chesnutt
This book is low on the list because there’s actually relatively little medical content. While this content is the central part of the book’s climax, it takes a while to get there. The novel is a fictionalized version of the Willimington massacre of 1898, which was begun by white supremacists trying to suppress black votes. The novel starts out on some seemingly unrelated issues, establishing the setting in North Carolina, some of the black and white families who live there, and the backstories, which will inform the characters’ motivations later. We also get some of the inciting incidents that lead towards the riot, most notably a robbery/murder that’s blamed on a black man.
Then we get to the riot itself and the reason that this book is on this list. One of the characters is Dr. William Miller, an African American doctor who started a hospital to better his community. This hospital is attacked as the riot progresses. Shortly after this, one of the newspapermen responsible for stirring people up against the black community and who’s been in a family feud with the Millers for a while, realizes that he needs Dr. Miller’s help to save the life of someone important to him. Whether or not he’ll get that help is the final culmination of the novel, and of years of conflict between families and races. It’s an emotional moment and worth the journey it took to get there.
Content Warning: As you could probably guess, the author, a colored man who grew up in the postbellum South, writes about his subject with some accuracy. That includes the racist language of the time. If you’re sensitive to that, this may not be the book for you.
8. Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini
But enough of that seriousness! Get ready for a swashbuckling tale about… oh, this one’s about slavery. Don’t worry; this one isn’t as depressing as it sounds. It starts off with a Dr. Peter Blood, who treats some fugitives who are part of a rebellion against the King of England. Though he isn’t part of the rebellion himself, Dr. Blood is arrested anyway and sold into slavery for his crimes. Blood escapes with some of his fellow slaves, and they all become pirates with Blood as their captain.
There’s not a lot of deeper meaning here, but the book was a lot of fun. To give you an idea of the general feel, it was adapted into an Errol Flynn movie, which felt like a lot of his other movies.
7. The Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters
This will not be the last time I mention Brother Cadfael in this blog. At the very least, it’ll get a shout-out if and when I get around to a mystery fiction list or a historical fiction list. Cadfael is a medieval monk who acts as an herbalist for his abbey and the surrounding area. He also uses his knowledge of plants and human nature to help the local law enforcement solve murders, which is actually what the stories are about. (One of the things I appreciate is that unlike most mystery series, the amateur detective works in cooperation with the law most of the time rather than around them.)
While Cadfael solves his mysteries, he cares for a lot of patients in body and spirit. He visits with people, brings them his herbal remedies, and listens to their troubles. He’s definitely emulating the Great Physician, even if he’s not technically one himself. If you want to get started with this series of 21, the first book is A Morbid Taste for Bones.
6. The Hostile Hospital by Lemony Snicket
Moving from a good example of healing to a really, really bad one, we have the eighth book in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which details the ongoing trials of the Baudelaire orphans. Basically, these three siblings go from place to place looking for a home and safety. In every book, they end up somewhere new, and each time, more horrible things happen to them and around them. They’re children’s books (which I still enjoy as an adult) characterized by dark, sardonic humor and word-related humor.
As the series progresses, the children start to become more proactive in trying to look for solutions to the problems around them. In this book, they disguise themselves and sneak into a hospital where they think they can find some information that will help them. The series villains follow them and also infiltrate the building, and everyone is trying to fool the actual hospital staff while thwarting each other.
5. The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams
Probably best known for his novel Watership Down, Richard Adams wrote another book giving us insight into the lives of animals, with this one about dogs. Two dogs named Snitter and Rowf escape from a research lab that was torturing them with experiments, and they embark on a quest to make a new home for themselves. As they travel, they’re spotted by a number of people. A sensationalist newspaper journalist catches wind of the situation and decides to pump up his readership by making people think that the two dogs left the lab carrying a dangerous plague. This hysteria leads to a manhunt for the dogs, since the public wants them killed as quickly as possible. The story has some emotional twists and turns before reaching the end, and plenty of tension along the way.
This story is part animal adventure and part warning about the dangers of misinformation. The plague is not real in this story, but people’s reaction to it has very real consequences.
4. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Doctors are primarily here to save and improve life, but doctors in fiction often go a step beyond that and try to create life. This usually ends up going very badly, as one would expect. One of the earliest examples of things going spectacularly awry, and still one of the best is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. (Title note: Prometheus was the figure in Greek mythology who created humans out of clay, though he was probably better known for the story where he stole fire from the gods and gave it to the humans and was punished for it.)
This book has a really cool framing structure that starts off with the letters of a man named Captain Walton who’s exploring the North Pole. He finds a cold, starved man out on the ice and then relates this man’s story in his letters. The man he saves, Victor Frankenstein, talks about how his mother died just before he went to medical school and how he dealt with the grief by working on medical experiments that would eventually lead him to cobble together a person from the pieces of several corpses and bring it to life. When it works, he freaks out and runs away, and when he eventually meets this (now angry and resentful) creature again, he tells Victor his own tale for a story within a story within a story. Since most people know at least the basics of the story, I won’t go into plot too much, but I will say that if you haven’t read the book, it’s quick and easy and worth your time.
3. Doctor Strange: The Oath by Brian K. Vaughan
There are many, many doctors and healers in comic books, but for me, none are more entertaining than Doctor Stephen Strange. This former surgeon damaged his hands in an accident and went all over looking for a medical cure and eventually a magical cure, and he ended up becoming a sorcerer instead. As one does. The story’s also about his own journey, dealing with his fears and insecurities and learning to care about other people again.
You can watch some of his adventures in the current Marvel Cinematic Universe, and you can find even more in the pages of comic books, and while many of these center around the magical problems he deals with as Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme, some of my favorites are the ones where he returns to his medical roots. One of the best stories is The Oath, in which he finds out that a close friend has cancer and goes looking for a magical medical cure. The title comes from a moral quandary he reaches by the end of the story regarding his Hippocratic Oath. At five issues long, this storyline is very short and well worth the read.
Also, the current Doctor Strange run, Surgeon Supreme, is really enjoyable so far. The premise is that he finally found a magic fix for his hands and is trying to be both a sorcerer and a surgeon at the same time and find some kind of balance, because there’s no way that could end badly. Also, he supposedly got the cure consequence-free, but that’s not the way comics work, so I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m hooked so far, but Marvel’s not releasing any new comics until after the quarantine is over, so I’ll have to wait a little bit longer. Understandably, they want to keep giving business to comic shops rather than just releasing things digitally. It’s a responsible decision, all things considered, and one that will hopefully give them time to make their upcoming works even better, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling a little impatient.
At the risk of rambling on too long about Doctor Strange, I also wanted to note a Doctor Strange story that sprang to mind as I was writing the Frankenstein entry. Basically, the reason Strange was a self-centered person in the first place was that he lost his parents and two siblings in a short span of time around the beginning of his medical career, and his grief and guilt made him start pushing people away. Later on, once he became a sorcerer, he decided to try to bring his brother Victor back from the dead. (I doubt the name was accidental.) Since it’s always a bad idea to resurrect the dead, this was a predictably terrible idea, and he accidentally turned Victor into a vampire. There’s some fun trivia for you for the day.
1 & 2. Better and Complications by Atul Gawande
For some reason, it feels wrong to have two books by the same author on a Top 10 list, like it’s cheating or something. It’s not, and that’s probably weird, but I thought I’d mention it anyway. If it’s weird to other people, I’ll justify it by pointing out that these are the only nonfiction books on my list, and they need to represent. I tend to read more fiction than nonfiction, so that heavily weights my results.
As for these books, the full titles are Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance and Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science. The titles actually give you a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get going in. Both books are told in a series of incidents that are part anecdote and part essay. They’re about the author’s personal experiences and musings on medicines with enough background research and information thrown in to keep the audience informed (but not so much that it overwhelms you). From what I could tell, it seemed like a very honest look at medicine – when it works and when it doesn’t – and about people who are trying their best to make the world a better place.
- The Sherlock Holmes series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Most of the stories in this series are told by a medical man, Dr. Watson, but let’s face it, most of his doctoring consists of shoving glasses of brandy at nervous people.
- You’re Only Old Once! by Dr. Seuss – I already covered this one in my Dr. Seuss review, but it was worth mentioning again.
- The Berenstain Bears Go to the Doctor by Stan & Jan Berenstain – This one isn’t too relevant to me now, but when I was young, it was a reassuring book that normalized the scary prospect of doctor’s visits. I didn’t think of it in those terms, but in retrospect, I realize that’s what it was doing. If you have kids, this might be one for them.
- TV Tie-Ins – There are some TV shows with awesome doctor characters that have novel tie-ins, like some of the doctors from Star Trek or Stargate. Technically, any Doctor Who book would fit into this category, too. However, when I read these books (and often enjoy them), it’s mostly because I’m a fan of the show and the characters. I can’t think of one offhand that stands on its own as a quality work of literature. At some point, I might do an article on media tie-in novels, especially the good ones, but not right away.
The reason I don’t want to do a media tie-in post immediately is because I wanted to look into some of the Star Wars novels next. Specifically, I’m going to take a dive into the “Legends” novels – the good, the bad, and the ugly. This body of work was the old canon before Disney bought Star Wars and rewrote the story. But the now-Legends books are the ones I grew up with, and I know a lot of other people remember them fondly, too. Whether these books are completely new to you or a trip down memory lane, I hope you’ll join me in a short celebration of how fun and weird the whole thing was. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article, on medical literature, and some of your favorite fictional doctors.