It's graduation season again, and it is always a melancholic experience for me. Most graduates promise to stay in touch, but only a small cadre communicate with me regularly, and I realized a long time ago that I would not hear from many of them ever again. Nevertheless, the graduates are ecstatic to leave residency to start their new lives. Several of them express a sincere appreciation for their training, but a few leave with gripes. This is just part of the business — sometimes you are the hero; sometimes you are the goat.
That said, the last thing many grads want to hear from me is more advice. But if you will just indulge me one more time, I want to give you an unusual graduation gift — the encouragement to read. This is not the same type of reading that your program director has asked you to do the past few years, but rather a suggestion to expand your thinking beyond the technical aspects of medical practice. Reading books on a diverse range of topics needs to be a lifetime habit, and although the term “intellectual” has become something of an insult in today's partisan political atmosphere, you cannot become one without being well-read and well-traveled.
Of course, thousands of books will broaden your perspective, but I will keep my list relatively short, just four (or more depending on your interests) for your consideration.
Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind
The author, Yuval Noah Harari, PhD, a young history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, took on a massive project when he chose to write about the history of mankind. You may think this is a 20-volume tome that will end up as a doorstop, but the author pulls off something of a miracle to complete this endeavor in just more than 400 pages.
The book takes us from humans' origin in Africa to our current global society. Dr. Harari will force you to consider concepts that have never crossed your mind but that you will never forget. Topics include prehistoric men's destruction of the environment, why we use money, how modern civilization is built entirely on humans' ability to fantasize, and how economic growth has created the most peaceful time in the history of our species (despite thoughts to the contrary).
Emperor of All Maladies, A Biography of Cancer
You've spent the past seven or eight years reading medical texts, and now I recommend a book on the history of cancer. But this book is so much more than a medical textbook. Author Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, is an Indian immigrant to the United States who began writing the book as a young oncology fellow in Boston. Much of it focuses on the socioeconomic and cultural components of cancer, and the project eventually morphed into a Pulitzer Prize winner for nonfiction as well as the topic of a Ken Burns documentary. Imagine writing your first book as a fellow and this happens. Read it, and you will see why it's on this list.
All Books by Malcolm Gladwell
I am totally cheating on this one because there are five Malcolm Gladwell books that were number one on the New York Times bestseller list: The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath. But here is why this collection is on the list: They are short and entertaining. Once you are freed from reading only medical textbooks, it is often difficult to acquire the habit to read. After all, you want to do fun stuff now, and this is why Mr. Gladwell is great. His books are short and fascinating. He has his haters, but it is impossible to find his books boring.
In these partisan times with accusations of information manipulation, nearly every sliver of data is redefined to uphold the speaker's point of view. But one item the talk show screamers appear to agree on is that the founding fathers of the United States were wise, infallible sages who changed the course of world history. Their actions are often used as talking points in political arguments with catch phrases like “the founding fathers intended blah, blah, blah.”
Consider this book by Joseph Ellis, PhD, an introduction to the complicated and often dysfunctional lives of these men. Not only were these “fathers” not very old (the average age of the signers of the constitution was 44), they were a long way from being infallible. The book focuses on nine pivotal and entertaining men integral to the formation of a very delicate North American republic in the 18th century. The book is short and contains only six stories, but it's packed with incredible drama that will hopefully get you interested in learning more about the fascinating early history of our country.
You will be entertained with the tale of the most important bromance in our nation's annals. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson's initial partnership, vitriolic breakup, and subsequent reconciliation spanned four decades and had an ending even a Hollywood producer would think is completely over the top. You will also read about the famous duel between Aaron Burr (a sitting vice president at the time) and Alexander Hamilton (who was killed by Burr). Yes, in the old days, politicians actually killed each other.
Maybe this gift to you is not as sexy as the pen set you received from your hospital, but if you can get into the habit of reading, it will be an activity you can enjoy your entire life. Let me know if you have other books you think new residency graduates should read.
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