Wednesday, May 16, 2007

"Prescribed Reading"...

While God and “militant atheists” are duking it out on the bookshelves (see Anthony Gottlieb’s "Atheists with Attitude" in the New Yorker), Jerome Groopman, author of How Doctors Think, argues in the NY Times article "Prescribed Reading" that for medical students looking to learn about the more existential aspects of their profession - the miracle of birth or the specter of death - the Bible would be a good place to start. He writes:

Each spring, I address these nonscientific dimensions of medicine with 12 freshmen at Harvard College in a seminar called “Insights From Narratives of Illness.” We read about a dozen works, from short stories by Turgenev to Samuel Shem’s Rabelaisian hospital novel “The House of God.” The students are generally surprised to learn how the experience of illness touches every corner of human emotion and behavior. But they are even more surprised to discover that even as they read the assigned books, they are often reading, in the background, one of the world’s oldest books. That book is the Bible. Whether read as revealed truth or as a literary work, the Bible is a sourcebook of human psychology and an enduring inspiration for authors trying to capture the drama and dilemmas of medicine.

I think Groopman’s argument for the Bible as an essential sourcebook to which medical students should turn is interesting but, it seems to me, he makes a better case for all literature as required reading for pre-med students rather than simply the Bible. Groopman writes,
The seminar begins with the Tolstoy novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.”...We move on to Turgenev, Chekhov and Kafka before reaching Richard Selzer’s “Letters to a Young Doctor,” a set of autobiographical essays first published in 1982...Later in the semester we shift to New Age writing, examining the message of books like the surgeon Bernie Siegel’s “Love, Medicine and Miracles” and, new this spring, Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret,” the runaway best seller that asserts you can solve all your problems, including “eradicating disease,” by correctly aligning your thoughts and aspirations...This semester, the class will end with a short novel that can be seen as a modern-day “Ivan Ilyich,” Philip Roth’s “Everyman.”

Such a wide-range of authors and style, seems to prove more than anything that literature, of which the Bible is merely a part, is the means through which, as Groopman says, pre-med students can engage “life’s existential mysteries: the miraculous moment of birth, the jarring exit at death, the struggle to find meaning in suffering.”