What to Read When Everyone Is Talking about Healthcare


Health insurance in America may not be perfect, or even close to, but Barack Obama brought us nearer to a fair system that allows access to healthcare for more Americans than we’d ever been. The new administration continues to promise to repeal so-called “Obamacare,” though they just can’t seem to figure out how to replace it. (Hillary Clinton has kindly offered up her proposed solution, which includes, you know, an actual plan with details and stuff.)

Republicans have long hoped to undue Obama’s legacy and return to the days of private insurance purchased almost exclusively through employers, denying care to a large swath of people in our country. Worse, they’d also like to expand preexisting conditions, which the Affordable Care Act has offered critical protections against.

We know where we stand on this issue: no one should be denied the healthcare they need, ever, for any reason. So, while Trump tweets incoherently and Republicans wring their hands over failing to fail their constituents, we’ve put together a list of wonderful books that look at physical and mental health from many different perspectives. By the time we’ve read through the entire list, maybe Congress will have come to their senses.


On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss
Biss investigates the metaphors and myths surrounding our conception of immunity and its implications for the individual and the social body.


An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks
Sacks presents seven medical case histories of individuals with neurological conditions, and the patients emerge as brilliantly adaptive personalities whose conditions have not so much debilitated them as ushered them into another reality.


Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
A gripping tale of adventure and searing reality, Lucky Boy gives voice to two mothers—one a Mexican birth mother facing deportation and one a Berkeley woman who can’t get pregnant—bound together by their love for one lucky boy.


Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson
Joe and Rose Kennedy’s strikingly beautiful daughter Rosemary attended exclusive schools, was presented as a debutante to the Queen of England, and traveled the world with her high-spirited sisters. And yet, Rosemary was intellectually disabled—a secret fiercely guarded by her powerful and glamorous family.


Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease edited by Holly J. Hughes
A unique collection of poetry and short prose about Alzheimer’s disease written by a hundred contemporary writers—doctors, nurses, social workers, hospice workers, daughters, sons, wives, and husbands—whose lives have been touched by the disease.


Change Me Into Zeus’s Daughter by Barbara Robinette Moss
A memoir that brings us deep into not only the world of Southern poverty and alcoholic child abuse but also the consciousness of one who is physically frail and awkward, relating how one girl’s debilitating sense of her own physical appearance is ultimately saved by her faith in the transformative powers of artistic beauty.


The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
Jamison draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory—from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration—in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.


Blackacre by Monica Youn
Youn brings her lawyerly intelligence and lyric gifts to bear on questions of fertility and barrenness as she attempts to understand her own desire—her own struggle—to conceive a child. Where the shape-making mind encounters unalterable fact, the poems in Blackacre explore new territories of art, meaning, and feeling.


The Story of My Face by Kathy Page
The Story of My Face is both a stunning psychological thriller and the archaeology of an accident which shaped a life.


The Brand New Catastrophe by Mike Scalise
After a ruptured pituitary tumor leaves Mike Scalise with the hormone disorder acromegaly at age twenty-four, he must navigate a new, alien world of illness maintenance.


Chronic by D. A. Powell
D. A. Powell strikes out for the farther territories of love and comes back from those fields with loss, with flowers faded, “blossom blast and dieback.” Chronic describes the flutter and cruelty of erotic encounter, temptation, and bitter heartsickness, but with Powell’s deep lyric beauty and his own brand of dark comedy.


Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life by Sandra Beasley
A compelling mix of memoir, cultural history, and science, this is mandatory reading for the millions of families navigating the world of allergies—and a not-to-be-missed literary treat for the rest of us.


The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs
A brilliant exploration of the natural, medical, psychological, and political facets of fertility—Boggs deftly distills her time of waiting into an expansive contemplation of fertility, choice, and the many possible roads to making a life and making a family.


The Midnight Disease by Alice W. Flaherty
Neurologist Alice W. Flaherty explores the mysteries of literary creativity: the drive to write, what sparks it, and what extinguishes it. She draws on intriguing examples from medical case studies and from the lives of writers. Flaherty, who herself has grappled with episodes of compulsive writing and block, also offers a compelling personal account of her own experiences with these conditions.


Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein
Six-year-old Jake is asking to meet his dad, and with good reason: his mother Karen is dying. With just a few more months to live, Karen resists allowing Jake’s father Dave to insinuate himself into Jake’s life. As she tries to play out her last days in the “right” way, Karen wrestles with the truth that the only thing she cannot bring herself to do for her son—let his father become a permanent part of his life—is the thing he needs from her the most.


A Second Opinion: Rescuing America’s Health Care by Arnold Relman
This book, based on sixty years’ experience in medicine, is a clarion call not just to politicians and patients but to the medical profession to evolve a new structure for healthcare, based on voluntary private contracts between individuals and not-for-profit, multi-specialty groups of physicians.


Ariel by Sylvia Plath
The second book of Plath’s poetry to be published, Ariel was originally published in 1965, two years after her death by suicide, and was arranged by Ted Hughes. The dark, often taboo, personal subject matter of the poems marked a dramatic turn from Plath’s first collection, Colossus. In 2004, a new edition of Ariel was published which for the first time restored the selection and arrangement of the poems as Plath had intended.


The House of God by Samuel Shem
The hilarious novel of the healing arts that reveals everything your doctor never wanted you to know.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, the narrative of this 1960s classic serves as a study of the institutional processes and the human mind as well as a critique of behaviorism and a celebration of humanistic principles.


Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan
When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened? In a swift and breathtaking narrative, Susannah tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith in her, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen.


The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp
The story of a mother’s journey through grief and beyond it. Rapp’s response to her son’s Tay-Sachs diagnosis was a belief that she needed to “make [her] world big”—to make sense of her family’s situation through art, literature, philosophy, theology and myth. Drawing on a broad range of thinkers and writers, Rapp learns what wisdom there is to be gained from parenting a terminally ill child. She re-examines our most fundamental assumptions about what it means to be a good parent, to be a success, and to live a meaningful life.


The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson
When Jon Ronson is drawn into an elaborate hoax played on some of the world’s top scientists, his investigation leads him, unexpectedly, to psychopaths. He meets an influential psychologist who is convinced that many important business leaders and politicians are in fact high-flying, high-functioning psychopaths, and teaches Ronson how to spot them. Along the way, Ronson discovers that relatively ordinary people are, more and more, defined by their most insane edges.