July 3, 2014

By Dr. Ann Loewen

Save Your Own Life With Literature

“Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress. When I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other. Though it is irregular, it is less boring that way, and besides, neither of them loses anything through my infidelity.”

– Anton Chekov, letter to a friend

Physicians, of necessity and natural inclination, are great readers. At a certain point in their lives, though, many give up reading for pleasure and only read professionally. Although there are excellent reasons for keeping up with the written word to maintain competence and to further one’s career, much is lost if the bedside table is piled with nothing but medical journals and textbooks, and the Favourites drop-down list is science from Annals of Internal Medicine to Zoonoses Today. At the risk of overstating the obvious, reading for pleasure is extremely pleasurable. Even in today’s ultra-scheduled world, it takes very little time to pick up and read a Chekov short story, and less again to enjoy a poem by William Carlos Williams. The fact that both these writers were also accomplished physicians makes them especially inspiring and insightful.

The world as it is represented in literature is almost the same as the one we live in, but not quite. Good writing takes us to physical and psychological places we might not go otherwise. On the way it entertains and enlightens without being didactic or moralistic. It disdains celebrity while celebrating the ordinary and the redemptive in daily transactions between flawed human beings. Books, and the ideas contained in them, are excellent conversation starters and stimulators. Anyone can be a literary critic on the side, for every reading experience is valid and valuable.

When I was in my third year of medical school I was very unhappy, partly because I felt I had given up too much in order to live my dream. To improve matters, I got permission from an English Lit instructor, a PhD candidate named Liz Steinson, to audit her Introduction to Canadian Literature course. Liz may have had her own motives for letting me take the course, because it turned out she was contemplating a thesis on physician characters as they were represented in Canadian literature. That encounter started to a discussion and a friendship that we renew every time we get together.

Anthologies and collections of fiction—long, short, excerpted—and poetry abound, though now they may have to be purchased online or at a used book sale since the passing of so many bookstores (see Recommended Reading list below). Pick up a few, keep one or two in the car, another in the office, and save one for the top of the bedside pile. You will be a better person—and doctor—for it.

Le Medecin Malgre Lui

Oh I suppose I should
Wash the walls of my office,
Polish the rust from
My instruments and keep them
Definitely in order;
Build shelves in
The little laboratory;
Empty out the old stains,
Clean the bottles
And refill them; buy
Another lens; put
My journals on edge instead of
Letting them lie flat
In heaps – then begin
Ten years back and
Read them to date,
Cataloguing important
Articles for ready reference.
I suppose I should
Read the new books.
If I added
A bill at the tailor’s
And at the cleaner’s
Grew a decent beard
And cultivated a look
Of importance –
Who can tell? I might be
A credit to my Lady of Happiness
And never think anything
But a white thought!

– William Carlos Williams, Doctor Stories

Dr. Ann’s Recommended Reading for Physicians:
A Literary Intervention

Physician Writers (fiction):

  • Of Human Bondage (1915), W. Somerset Maugham
  • The Kite Runner (2003), A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) Khaled Hosseini
  • Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures (2006), Vincent Lam
  • Consumption (2006), Kevin Patterson
  • Collected short stories (1860-1904), Anton Chekov

Physician Literary Characters – many of the above, plus:

  • Middlemarch (1872), George Eliot
  • Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), Julian Barnes
  • Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Blindness (1995), Jose Saramango
  • English Passengers (2000), Matthew Kneale
  • Anil’s Ghost (2000), Michael Ondaatje
  • How To Be Good (2001), Nick Hornby
  • The Attack (2008), Yasmina Khadra

Physician Poets:

  • John Keats (1795 – 1821), English Romantic poet
  • William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963), American Modern poet