ETHICS: A good read

Deborah Bowman offers an alternative summer reading list.

  • Date: 07 April 2014

I’M just back from a wet week at the Hay Festival where thousands of people ignored the tempest raging outside to celebrate literature, ideas and writing. Books, then, are on my mind. In the spirit of the ‘summer reading’ recommended by national treasures in the broadsheets, I’ve been thinking about what titles I’d recommend to someone with an interest in health and ethics. These are the ones that eventually made the final cut.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Collections of essays do not enjoy the same popularity in the UK as in the US. If a reason were needed to explore the essay as a form, this wonderful collection is it. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking exploration of empathy: its character, significance and meaning. Jamison’s lens is wide-ranging and she considers subjects including illness, her work as a simulated patient, travel, extreme sports and female pain. She is particularly strong on the question of simulated and sincere empathy, challenging the notion that they are in opposition. For anyone who cares for others – in whatever capacity – this is a rewarding read.

Easeful Death by Mary Warnock

Questions and debates about assisted dying abound and the choice for anyone wishing to read about the subject is overwhelming. This slim volume stands out as an eloquent and considered contribution. In an area of ethics where discussion often yields more heat than light, Warnock’s careful and attentive approach is illuminating. Whatever one thinks about assisted dying, those thoughts will be more informed and better developed for reading this book.

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Mukherjee’s book has been shortlisted for, and won, numerous prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize. It deserves every accolade. Mukherjee carries off the challenge of creating an engaging narrative without compromising rigour in this biography of cancer. The skill with which he draws together science, social history and moral philosophy is remarkable and the result is nothing less than gripping. Mukherjee is fearless about the discomforting questions that hover persistently for those whose lives are affected by cancer. He responds with honesty and difficult truths, but always retains his wisdom and compassion. Doctor, What’s Wrong?

Making the NHS Human Again by Sophie Petit-Zeman

Petit-Zeman’s book is unlike any other I have in my office. It takes a hybrid form. The first part is fiction: the story of patients and professionals providing and receiving healthcare with more shared vulnerability than one might imagine. The second part is an analysis of the ways in which the NHS both fosters and impedes compassionate clinical practice. The combination of factual and fictional writing is affecting and effective. The copy on my shelf was published in 2005, so the book is nearly 10 years old, but it remains as prescient and relevant as ever. It is a reminder that ethical practice rarely occurs in isolation. The systems in which individuals work inevitably create a moral culture in which ethical practice may thrive or falter. It is a point that bears repeating, often. Speak,

Old Parrot by Dannie Abse

It was a joy to hear Dr Abse talk at a poetry festival in honour of his 90th birthday. I could have recommended any of his books, but this collection is a stunning evocation of aging, loss and the inherently moral character of medicine. The poems speak both to the internal and external, literally and metaphorically. The changing nature of the body and its facility to engage with the external world are beautifully rendered, but so too is the private adaptation that must occur. He has a unique ability to recognise the value of medicine whilst puncturing any tendencies to grandiosity. Although the themes are often weighty, the writing is deft and witty. There are many terrific doctor-writers, but for me, few match Dannie Abse.

Bodies by Jed Mercurio

The original novel is subtler than the televised version and better for it. An affecting story of a doctor in the earliest years of his career who encounters the bruising realities of life on the wards. Mercurio’s own experience as a doctor seeps into the story and his exploration of medical mistakes, whistleblowing, tribalism and the tension between personal and patient interests is credible, frightening and ultimately moving.

Granta 120: Medicine

This is an outstanding collection of essays, poetry, stories and images about illness and its treatment. Contributors include fine writers such as Alice Munro, Rose Tremain and Chris Adrian. It is difficult to choose a favourite piece such is the standard, but M J Hyland’s essay about living with multiple sclerosis is extraordinary. As someone who also has MS, I have never read anything as lucid and truthful about the experience of early symptoms, diagnosis and eventually learning to live with the new neurological normal.

Wishing you all a restorative summer – happy reading!

Deborah Bowman is Professor of Bioethics, Clinical Ethics and Medical Law at St George’s, University of London

This page was correct at the time of publication. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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