07/02/2012 09:27 am ET Updated Sep 01, 2012

For Independence Day and the Summer Holiday, Take Along Some Great Reading on Health, Medicine and Science

The paperwork may be piled on your desk and your inbox overflowing. But even a glance around the office or cafeteria could serve to wake you to an important occurrence: Summer's upon us. It's a time when offices, factories and schools empty and we all sneak off for some hard-earned R&R. As you declare your independence this week and we splash the skies with patriotic fireworks and stirring music, don't forget to stash some great summer reads in your tote for that annual retreat to the mountains or shore.

The data suggest that reading, whether with ink or electrons, is a booming pastime -- so I nabbed some colleagues from around my home institution recently for some of their recommendations for books on health, medicine or science.

It's unsurprising to me that many of the deeply committed physicians and researchers consulted said, frankly, that they are so consumed by keeping up with their professional reading -- medical journals, scientific papers and the like -- that they, too, were looking forward to taking summer vacations so they could catch up with novels, mysteries and light and diverting fare.

You'll also see a trend in the several books suggested -- many were written by physicians.

That's a historical development, rooted in the extensive education and learning long required of those in the healing professions. Experts also have noted that the traits that traditionally have made for outstanding physicians -- keen observation skills, as well as empathy, insight and understanding for others' lives, especially in the most difficult circumstance -- are shared with those accomplished in prose.


Considerable reading pleasures for the season could be found in works by those medically trained or who practiced, including the likes of Walker Percy, Ethan Canin, Anton Chekhov, W. Somerset Maugham or William Carlos Williams. My colleague Patrick Lyden, MD, who heads our Neurology Department, recommends the Victim Donor, a thriller penned by Ken Corre, a novelist, screenwriter -- and an emergency medicine doctor. Your teenagers might find a lot more than extra reading credits for the summer by tackling the intrigues of the protagonist of another MD: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who brought to life in his series of books Sherlock Holmes -- the original before he was a noisy big-screen character or a BBC television eccentric. And don't be surprised if you still see and enjoy around resorts the tattered paperback thrillers by physicians Michael Crichton or Robin Cook.

To preserve the humanistic traits in the practice of medicine, which is both an art and science, educators in the field have sought to foster literary attributes and accomplishment among physicians and other caregivers. It's worth perusing some of the online and print resources of these efforts -- and they can provide hours of discovery and entertainment about physician authors, artists and musicians, much more than I could cover here.

But let's get on to more reading ideas.

Not one but two colleagues recommended the latest work by a brilliant author and physician: Abraham Verghese. I very much admire his clinical initiative at Stanford to ensure that aspiring physicians don't lose the art of conducting hands-on physical examinations of patients. And My Own Country and the Tennis Partner are moving accounts of the human condition. Cutting for Stone is his first novel, which surgeon Zuri Murrell, MD, who directs our Colorectal Cancer Center says is riveting. "The book is about twin boys who are born in an Ethiopian hospital -- and then essentially orphaned -- by their mother, a nursing nun who died in childbirth, and their British father, a brilliant surgeon who leaves the country for good just days after their birth. The medical detail is remarkable, but it never overwhelms the narrative," Murrell says.

Rekha Murthy, MD, director of hospital epidemiology, also commends this work, saying: "A common theme among the characters that interested me was the power of the work of medicine, from the rudimentary Third World conditions in rural Ethiopia to an inner-city urban hospital in the United States. Although surgery is referenced in the title, the description of the challenges they encounter in dealing with medical problems in these diverse locations is captivating."

Emperor of Maladies, Immortal Life

Jan Hobbs, who manages the Medical Library, gives the thumbs up to The Emperor of All Maladies: a Biography of Cancer. She says it is "a magnificent, profoundly humane 'biography' of cancer - from its first documented appearances thousands of years ago through the epic battles in the 20th century to cure, control and conquer it to a radical new understanding of its essence. Physician, researcher and award-winning science writer Siddhartha Mukherjee examines cancer with a cellular biologist's precision, a historian's perspective and a biographer's passion. The result is an astonishingly lucid and eloquent chronicle of a disease that humans have lived with -- and perished from -- for more than 5,000 years. ... The book reads like a literary thriller with cancer as the protagonist. It is an illuminating book that provides hope and clarity to those seeking to demystify cancer."

She also endorses, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, the story, she says, of "a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells -- taken without her knowledge -- became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first 'immortal' human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than 60 years." Her cells, "were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses and the atom bomb's effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave," she says.

Skloot takes readers on an "extraordinary journey," in which she "brilliantly" shows how the story of the Lacks family is inextricably connected to the history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of, Hobbs says. "Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences."

Thinking About Health, What We Eat

Two other colleagues have recommended works that remind us all of consequences on our health from diet. Prediman K. Shah, MD, a cardiologist who walks the stairs in our Heart Institute and "walks the walk" with his own diet (hint: he's big on veggies and fish and not on sugar and beef), suggested that this summer's beach book ought to be The China Study. As one review describes it, the work examines more than 350 variables of health and nutrition with surveys from 6,500 adults in more than 2,500 counties across China and Taiwan, and conclusively demonstrates the link between nutrition and heart disease, diabetes and cancer. While revealing that proper nutrition can have a dramatic effect on reducing and reversing these ailments as well as curbing obesity. Knowing how pressed many of us can be about reading and how videos can be a preferred medium, he also recommended the documentary Forks Over Knives and its scientific argument for plant-based diet that curbs processed- and animal-sourced food.

Miguel Burch, MD, a surgeon specializing in minimally invasive procedures, many of them related to weight loss, offered a tout for Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, a work that challenges how we answer the question "what should we have for dinner?" The work, which points out that consumers confront countless food choices and must re-learn what is safe to eat and what isn't, encourages Americans to consider consuming far fewer corn-based products.

I know many of you will wonder, when you look at the myriad possible downloads for your e-readers or you scan the groaning shelves at stores, which of the many health and medicine books -- including and especially those penned by physicians with impressive appearing credentials -- should be read and heeded. I know we're all overwhelmed with claims and assertions about diets, nostrums, exercise plans and "new" lifestyle regimens. Based on even a cursory glance at the best-seller lists and a fingers- and toes-calculation of their cover costs, it should be clear that these kind of wonder works can be lucrative for their authors. I've written before that informed, rational skepticism is a great asset for evaluating on a factual and scientific basis everything written about health and medicine. It works online as well as in print and broadcast: If it sounds too good to be true, check it out with doubt.

On the other hand, life can be short and there's advantage to recognizing what matters and what doesn't, especially when a summer respite provides a little time to think.

So I pass on the suggestion by Michael G. Wetter, PsyD, associate director of psychology at the Cedars-Sinai Center for Weight Loss, that you take time for The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. This is, Wetter says, a "quick read with an uplifting message that I believe helps" people "focus on improving the quality of their life."

So, thanks to all my colleagues who offered ideas about their suggestions for summer reading on health or science topics. As for me, I am looking forward to settling down on a chaise lounge with a few tomes written by Follett, Forsyth or Ludlum for total escapism and little need for cerebral activity other than staying awake