The Novel That Led Abraham Verghese to a Medical Career
What books are on your night stand?
The stack reflects the overlapping compartments of my life: Daniel Mason’s “North Woods” (in galley form); “Images of Memorable Cases: 50 Years at the Bedside,” by Herbert L. Fred and Hendrik A. van Dijk; “The Best Strangers in the World,” by Ari Shapiro; “The Passenger,” by Cormac McCarthy; and at the bottom, the two volumes of “Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine,” a book that I’ve had a love affair with ever since I encountered the seventh edition in 1974. My ambition is always to read it cover to cover before the next edition, but for the last five editions I haven’t come close. In my defense, it’s 4,384 pages.
What’s the last great book you read?
“The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois,” by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. I’m drawn to big epic novels, and this was all that at over 800 pages (but still, a pamphlet compared to “Harrison’s”).
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
I had only sampled Saul Bellow (“Humboldt’s Gift”) when I was in my 20s. I picked up “The Adventures of Augie March” during the darkest days of the Covid pandemic. I found it stunning. It left me no choice but to systematically read everything of his. I had a similar reaction to “The Brothers Karamazov,” another recent read; it made me go back to and better appreciate “Crime and Punishment” and to commit to read all of Dostoyevsky’s oeuvre. I think editors today would take a red pen to Dostoyevsky’s long digressions, but to me those are integral to his charm.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Ideal would be on a houseboat in Kerala, motoring down the backwaters with my own cook and boatman and sipping toddy; or else under an umbrella at some warm beach while digitally disconnected. But I’ll settle for an uninterrupted hour or two wherever I can find it, and that’s typically late at night, or often on a plane. During the height of the Covid pandemic (whose only silver lining was what it did for reading and for baking sourdough bread), I was biking or walking to work and I got into audiobooks. I could seamlessly pick up where I left off on the physical page the previous night. Listening to a book has made me even more attuned to the sound of what I put on the page. It led me to audition for narrating the audiobook of “The Covenant of Water.” Happily, I got the role. (It’s harder than most people realize: One has to perform the book and convey who is speaking using pitch, tone and accent but without overdoing it. Five hours a day for two and a half weeks and communicating by sign language in the evenings to restore the voice.)
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
“The Citadel,” by A.J. Cronin, isn’t as well known in America as in Britain and the Commonwealth. The oppressive conditions described in the fictional Welsh mining town so captivated the public’s imagination that it ostensibly shares responsibility for the creation of the National Health Service. A generation of physicians outside of America name “The Citadel” as the book that called them to medicine.
What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
“The World According to Garp,” by John Irving. I’d add “The Razor’s Edge,” by W. Somerset Maugham. Very different books, but both with memorable protagonists on a quest for meaning and purpose in life.
What book should nobody read until the age of 40?
“Love in the Time of Cholera,” by García Márquez. Sorry, but only in your fifth decade will you have experienced enough heartbreak to truly grasp this great love story.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Other than those mentioned, I’d say anything by the poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje. Even when he’s writing prose it reads like poetry — “In the Skin of a Lion” (another book that isn’t very well known in America) is just one of many examples. Also, Margaret Atwood, Marilynne Robinson, Orhan Pamuk, Isabel Allende, John Burnham Schwartz, John McPhee, Jeffrey Brown and any essay by the fearless Arundhati Roy. I’ll add the poet W.S. Merwin to this list. (Yes, he’s deceased, but he was a friend and a mentor and since I’m often listening to his voice on the only CD I possess in my car, he feels very alive to me.)
In your non-writing life, you’re an accomplished physician and medical professor. Who writes especially well about medicine for a popular audience?
Atul Gawande, Marcia Angell, Danielle Ofri, Peter D. Kramer, Sandeep Jauhar, Sid Mukherjee and Oliver Sacks all write beautifully about medicine. But I think of Berton Roueché as the originator of this nonfiction form. A rarer breed is physicians writing literary fiction; Ethan Canin and Daniel Mason come to mind.
What book, if any, most influenced your decision to become a doctor?
That would be W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage.” Philip, the young protagonist, tries to become an artist in Paris but painfully discovers that he doesn’t have the talent. He retreats to London and goes to medical school instead. The first few years are sheer drudgery until he arrives on the wards. He finds that he is less shy with patients than he has ever been with others, and he sees “humanity there in the rough.” Somehow, when I read those words as an underachieving student in high school, it suggested to me that anyone with a curiosity and empathy for their fellow human beings and a willingness to work hard could be a good physician and be rewarded by work that has great meaning.
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
I don’t avoid anything, but I may have less time for newer works. I always have my old favorites lined up next to my writing desk and will often pull one out and reread passages or even the entire book to remind myself of the voice, structure, lyricism and the staggering ambition in the big novels I admire. In addition to books previously mentioned (especially “Love in the Time of Cholera”), the list includes V.S. Naipaul’s “A House for Mr. Biswas,” John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” Isabel Allende’s “The House of Spirits,” Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance" and Carol Shields’s “The Stone Diaries.”
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
I’m reading Ken Follett’s “The Pillars of the Earth,” one of the many books that I purchased but never got to until now. Through its compelling characters I’m learning about the evolution of masonry in the building of cathedrals, and the slow realization that instead of rounded arches, thick walls and tiny windows with massive piers, one could, by using rib vaulting as a strong skeleton combined with precise load bearing, allow the spaces between to have large stained-glass windows, light stonework or even empty space. The book is set in the 12th century; it’s a riveting story.
How do you organize your books?
I keep only the books I see myself rereading or referring to again (or so I tell myself). I have shelves for poetry, fiction, nonfiction and medicine, arranged alphabetically. There’s a separate bookcase full of self-help books on things like relationships, money and marriage — ironic considering I’ve been divorced twice. But hope springs eternal and at least I’m better informed.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
People are shocked to see a bookcase chock-full of “how-to-write” books; I’m a sucker for that genre because for me writing is so hard and time-consuming, which is why my manuscript pages are stained with blood, sweat and tears. I keep hoping that one of these authors will reveal a shortcut or a secret that saves me body fluids and years of labor. Recently, I discovered that an author had quoted me in his “how to write” book, which I took as a sign not to buy more books in this genre.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
I first toyed with the idea of writing because I was so affected by what I witnessed as an infectious diseases specialist during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, taking care of dying men (mostly) who were my age. My older brother, George, must have tired of hearing me talking about writing (which is much easier than actually writing) because he gave me “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within,” by Natalie Goldberg. It was my brother’s inscription on the title page more than anything else that started my writing career: He wrote, “SO WRITE ALREADY!”
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I grew up in Ethiopia, the child of Indian parents who were hired there as physics teachers. There was no TV, not until I was a teenager. I was a precocious reader and books were a gateway to a world more exciting than the one I lived in. I liked Enid Blyton’s “The Secret Seven” series and, later, “The Hardy Boys.” When I discovered C.S. Forester’s seafaring novels following the career of the fictional Horatio Hornblower, I felt I had stumbled onto a gold mine. (I still reread those volumes and they remain just as enjoyable.) Looking back, by the age of 10 I was clearly on a quest for content that was prurient and salacious. At an early age I stumbled onto “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” which quickly demoted the Hornblower books and Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo” from my list of favorites. I’m ashamed to say I picked up W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” because the title seemed promising! While it didn’t have the lascivious content I’d imagined, it turned out to have something better: It was the book that, as mentioned above, called me to medicine.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
Many of my esteemed medical colleagues seem to read only “serious” books — meaning nonfiction in the form of biography, political memoirs and the like. As a reaction to that, perhaps, I mostly read fiction these days. I like to remind my nonfiction-reading friends that it was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” not a politician or a political scientist, that made slavery distasteful to many Americans. (That being said, Stowe’s own views on racial equality were reprehensible.) I preach to my medical students that to fully imagine their patients’ lives they must read fiction, because fiction is the great lie that tells the truth (to paraphrase Camus). You can read a textbook on “end of life,” but to come close to being in the shoes of a patient with a terminal condition, Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is the required text. Similarly, Dorothy Allison’s “Bastard Out of Carolina” will make you viscerally feel what child abuse is like, something no pediatric textbook can convey.
I’ve always liked mystery novels (Patricia Highsmith, John le Carré, Georges Simenon, Louise Penny, Walter Mosley), but during the pandemic my appetite for them kicked into high gear and I devoured like bonbons the works of Attica Locke, Peter Grainger, Olen Steinhauer, Henning Mankell, Mick Herron and Caimh McDonnell.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Jim Harrison for sure, because the man can cook plus he’ll bring the wine; I’m just hoping he won’t frighten away my other two guests: Virginia Woolf and Flannery O’Connor.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
“Finnegans Wake.” If anyone knows what the book is about please let me know. On second thought, don’t.
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