4 nonmedical books every doctor should read

By John James
Published January 22, 2021

Key Takeaways

Throughout the world, COVID-19 has ushered in a dreary winter, spanning the past year and the foreseeable future. Physicians have worked through once-unimaginable circumstances to ensure patients received lifesaving care, while families said goodbye to their loved ones over video chat. Along the way, we’ve canceled birthday parties and graduations, set up offices at home, and come to understand that there are moments when isolation is the only option.

Given this dramatic shift in living, it’s easy to see why some have responded to the madness of the pandemic by binge-watching Netflix or taking up drinking. But there are other ways to fill the time.

Rarely has there been a more fitting moment to pick up a book and reflect on what comes next.

For physicians who’ve been working long hours treating sick and dying patients, the prospect of opening a dense medical text to grapple with their role in the profession might seem daunting. That’s why MDLinx compiled a reading list of captivating books that have nothing to do with medicine—but might just help physicians realize something about their work, and life.

The Night of the Gun, by David Carr

The Night of the Gun

Consider this the anti-memoir. Rather than rely on his own hazy memory, the late New York Times writer David Carr spent 3 years conducting more than 60 interviews to chronicle his drug and alcohol addiction, recovery, and rise to prominence in this groundbreaking book.

In nearly 400 breathtaking pages, the legendary media columnist sends readers to a world all but invisible to the squeaky clean. There are late-night drug purchases while his children wait in the car. Intoxicated mornings split between the bar and the office. Tough-to-read stories of violence and domestic abuse. But The Night of the Gun is also rife with hope and redemption, a reminder that no one is defined only by their mistakes.

Why should physicians care, though? There’s the obvious firsthand account that gives the physician a unique look into how some patients live, not just how they present in the clinic, and the ideas surrounding substance use disorder and treatment. Carr’s biggest gift to doctors, however, is his intrepid reporting of his own story. The Night of the Gun serves as a road map to the truth: Ask questions, ask more questions, gather and analyze all available data, ask questions again, interrogate your feelings, ask just a few more questions, and piece together the story the best you can. Physicians, who are more strapped for time and physically separated from their patients than ever before, may well stand to strengthen their paths to clinical diagnoses by adopting elements of Carr’s relentless process.

Read The Night of the Gun, by David Carr

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

The Overstory

Here’s some advice: Don’t pass up the chance to read a Pulitzer Prize winner. After all, there’s a reason why those awards mean something.

The Overstory, which claimed the 2019 fiction prize, embodies everything the Pulitzers should represent. Its author, Richard Powers, weaves a sprawling story that appears to be built on a series of disparate characters and far-flung vignettes. In time, though, his beautiful prose ties each tale together, in a dramatic convergence centered around the fight to preserve mammoth trees and unspoiled woodlands in the 1990s Pacific Northwest. The novel contains enough human love, death, and desperation to almost force readers to forget that it’s the trees that drive this story.

What’s striking about The Overstory, and what physicians might find most appealing, is how it handles complex systems. Everything is connected, and no disruption occurs without causing ripples elsewhere. That’s the story of the COVID-19 pandemic: An outbreak in China led to public health, economic, and social crises across the globe. An influx of sick and infectious patients led to supply chain breakdowns, restrictions on elective procedures, overcrowded hospitals, and declining revenues. In the same way, the human body’s intricacies mimic those of nature. Another message in The Overstory—to look deeper, to go to the source, to understand the context—offers physicians a mantra to navigate times of uncertainty.

Read The Overstory by Richard Powers

9 Algorithms That Changed the Future, by John MacCormick


While this book is unlikely to top any literary critics’ lists, its prose is notable in that its author, the computer science professor John MacCormick, manages to demystify the murky world of algorithms. If artificial intelligence no longer appears as a black box, is it still frightening, suspicious, or off-putting?

MacCormick’s 9 Algorithms That Changed the Future serves as both a history of computer science and an explanation for how its greatest products, from search engines to relational databases, work. In little more than 200 pages, he affords readers a basic understanding of the technology we use every day. That’s invaluable to anyone who’s inherently curious.

Physicians, in particular, have something to gain here. As healthcare continues its digital transformation, pushback to technology remains. There’s no doubt that some, if not much of that, is deserved, thanks to unreliable technology implementations, the many arduous electronic medical record systems, and flawed systems that simply weren’t designed with physicians and other clinicians in mind. Despite all this, healthcare technology is moving ahead more quickly than before, thanks to COVID-19 and the rise of virtual care, actionable data, and analytics.

Doctors who welcome the shift will consider 9 Algorithms That Changed the Future an interesting look at the innovations that laid the bedrock for healthcare’s evolution. Physicians who are reluctant to embrace technology might also read the book with interest, if only to better understand how their daily lives stand to change.

Read 9 Algorithms That Changed the Future by John MacCormick

On Writing, by Stephen King

Stephen King

When the famed horror novelist Stephen King authored this guide for scribes, he chose to supplement the technical with the personal. On Writing, therefore, contains a deep and personal look at the architect behind some of our worst nightmares, from his perspective. King’s story began as a miserable young man who taught by day and wrote by night, barely making enough money to get by, and ended with incredible success (and a remarkable recovery after being hit by a car).

Of all the advice he offers up-and-coming writers, and of all the delightful war stories he shares with readers, one portion of On Writing stands out as particularly helpful for physicians, who are so often consumed by work and vulnerable to burnout.

King recalled his purchase of a large, oak desk that dominated his study. There, he drank and drugged, retreated from the world and wrote. Like Carr, King also suffered through alcohol and cocaine abuse, ultimately getting clean after his wife staged an intervention. Afterward, he began focusing on his family and recognizing the role of writing—his living—in his life. He traded his oversized desk for something smaller.

“… Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room,” King wrote. “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

Is the same not true of medicine?

Read On Writing by Stephen King

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