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When Doctors Write

When faced with the opportunity to read a book by someone who isn’t by profession a writer, I always go for the doctor. It is the rare book by the businessman or entertainer or politician that I thoroughly enjoy; and lawyer-writers may be the worst of the lot.

But doctors! Often, I love them. Arthur Conan Doyle was a marvel. Walker Percy was very good. Chekhov was phenomenal. (It was Chekhov from whom I learned where to “cut into” a story, the crucial point in the narrative arc where the writer begins to relate the tale.) And two men have just published non-fiction books that seem sure to enhance the literary reputation of doctors.

The first is Jerome Groopman’s How Doctors Think, which I was asked to blurb – we share a literary agent – and I happily agreed, since I love his writing for The New Yorker. Here’s the quote that Levitt and I supplied: “Jerome Groopman has written a unique, important, and wonderful book about a central paradox of modern life: even though diagnosing an illness is often as much art as science, we want our doctors to speak with scientific surety. Groopman gives a rationalist’s tour of the doctor’s thought processes – or lack thereof – and yet, unlike many rationalists, he never veers toward cynicism. You’ll never look at your own doctor in the same way again – for better or worse.” And I meant every word of it. It is not only Groopman’s intelligence, but also his humanity, that imbues this book with deep meaning.

The second book, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, is by Atul Gawande, who also writes for The New Yorker. I haven’t read Better yet, but I loved his previous book, Complications, as well as some of Gawande’s New Yorker pieces that are incorporated into Better. (Particularly memorable were the articles on cystic fibrosis and on the origin of the Apgar test.) Gawande has important things to say about medicine and is a wonderful stylist; if I practiced medicine one-tenth as well as Gawande writes, I would seriously consider opening a little medical practice on the side.

So why do these doctors write so well, and so much better (to my mind, at least) than other non-writers? Perhaps there are elements of doctoring that lie in harmony with writing: peeling back the layers to get to the core of an issue; confronting the obvious but being willing to look beyond it; learning where to “cut in,” of course; and, more than anything, recognizing that this object before you – in one case a human body, in the other a manuscript – is on a certain level a miraculous object with the power to astound, and on another level is a complex, dynamic system which can (and must be) reduced to a schematic, laid out on paper or x-ray film.