What works of fiction should doctors read?

Readers of this blog would have observed the themes behind my book recommendations. The bulk of the books so far have been about safety culture, human factors, decision-making, and leadership.

I had intended from the outset to review some works of fiction, but only if they contain lessons to aid doctors in their professional practice. It would have been far easier to recommend a book because I enjoyed its criminal mystery and ingenious twists, such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. I have resisted the temptation (or have I?), even though the key character here is a medical doctor.

What are the fiction books doctors should read then? I couldn’t think of any Sherlock Holmes book to recommend, even though the author, Arthur Conan Doyle, was a doctor. The Doctor’s Dilemma by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw has a tempting title, but not really a lesson for professional practice. The books of the medical doctor Anton Chekhov may make the list but, alas, I haven’t read any of his numerous works yet.

Books HD. Abhi Sharma on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/abee5/8314929977
Books HD. Abhi Sharma on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/abee5/8314929977

I therefore took a shortcut and looked at what others have recommended. In my previous blog, BMJ Book Recommendations, and its follow-up full analysis, I discovered that a fifth of the books suggested for doctors to read were fiction. What an ideal place to start off then. Going over the BMJ fiction list, four books stood out on the strength and the frequency of their recommendations:

  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The House of God by Samuel Shem
  • Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
  • The Citadel by AJ Cronin
British Medical Journal printed my drawing. Giulia Forsyth on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/gforsythe/7004133009
British Medical Journal printed my drawing. Giulia Forsyth on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/gforsythe/7004133009

Surely these books will make the fiction section of The Doctors Bookshelf. A quick order on Amazon, and the first delivery is Love in the Time of Cholera. This took me aback by its excessive depictions of licentiousness and reckless debauchery. There were no take-home lessons either about cholera or about love. There is however a cautionary lesson around the ethical and professional conduct of the doctor in the story: do not woo and marry one of your patients, and do not take another as a mistress. I singularly would not recommend this book.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10660042
CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10660042

If Love in the Time of Cholera has few lessons for doctors, I found The House of God an impossible read. Set in a hospital and cast in the mould of Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, I found it to be an aimless, and often hedonistic, fantasy. I failed to see any lessons here for doctors.

I was now down to two books, and getting worried my blog will have no works of fiction. I took up Cutting for Stone and, for work of fiction, it was difficult to put down. And for lessons, there were just enough to make the cut for me. I have therefore chosen it for future review. Finally I read The Citadel, and this is by far the clear front-runner for reasons I will highlight when I review it soon.

Do you have any fiction recommendations to beat these? Please drop a comment.



  1. I would recommend “Cider House Rules” by John Irving.
    Reading your reviews here i think it makes the cut.
    Readable serious work. Examines ethical and social questions about abortion, orphanages and child adoption. Tells a wonderful tale about how not knowing about an illness can cause heartache for a family, how a simple diagnosis preserves the legacy of a person.

    It is emotional, funny, instructive. Above all a great work of art.


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