Prescribed Reading

If Jerome Groopman had been offering his freshman seminar on “Insights from Narratives of Illness” when I arrived at Harvard College 20 years ago, chances are that I’d have applied to be a part of it. But this Sunday he offered all of us who won’t ever have that opportunity a glimpse into the course syllabus in “Prescribed Reading,” which appeared in the New York Times Book Review.

The course seems predicated on the idea that “No insight into [medicine’s] more existential aspects is found in clinical texbooks, properly devoted to physiology, pharmacology, and pathology. Rather, it is literature that most vividly grapples with such mysteries, and with the character of physician and patient.”

Readings begin, he tells us, with Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych. The class also includes Richard Selzer’s Letters to a Young Doctor (one of the books I most appreciate having been assigned as an MFA student; the nonfiction story that has stayed with me most from that book–the story of Imelda–turns up specifically in Groopman’s piece).

“Prescribed Reading” will definitely intrigue anyone interested in the literary depiction of medical experience. And for more reading tips in this area, see this astonishing database.