The first day of summer has arrived, and so has STAT’s annual book list of great reads in health, science, and medicine.
Read on for recommendations from CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna and CDC Director Robert Redfield. Plus, STAT readers from Boston to Ireland to Australia share their picks, in addition to our staff. Enjoy!
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“Scientific Conversations: Interviews on Science from The New York Times”
By Claudia Dreifus
This is an awesome collection of 38 interviews, published originally in the Science Times section of the New York Times, that captures the wonder and excitement of scientific discovery. As an outstanding journalist and a relative outsider to science, Dreifus elicits from her subjects the passion, frustration, inspiration and, ultimately, the joy of doing science. Her writing reminds me of the work of John McPhee: deep and expansive with a sense of fun. A great read!
— Jennifer Doudna, professor and HHMI Investigator, UC Berkeley; director, Innovative Genomics Institute of UC Berkeley/UCSF/Gladstone Institutes
“Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases”
By Paul A. Offit
Physicians, parents, and public health professionals seeking credible, timely information about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines will find those answers in Dr. Offit’s “Vaccinated.” He writes a compelling narrative, sharing the underlying science and historical context behind the vaccine regimen recommended today. This fact-based retrospective dispels myths and underscores the importance of immunization for children and adults alike. Readers will have a better understanding of the science-based reasoning to embrace vaccination for themselves, their families, and their communities.
— Dr. Robert R. Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
“Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues”
By Paul Farmer
This book highlights so well the very inception of the Bill and Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute itself and our mission to develop treatments and preventive agents for diseases burdening the world’s poorest people. Tenderly, Farmer tells the stories of those who suffer, offering their complex circumstances in the face of overwhelming data. The Partners in Health co-founder challenges those determined to care for the most vulnerable to challenge the status quo. Although written 20 years ago, the stories ring truer than ever. Inequities in health have only become magnified and are now manifest in our own backyard. Although sobering, it is also inspiring and may make the reader leap to other resources such as “The Age of Living Machines” by Susan Hockfield, who posits that convergence across scientific disciplines led to the current technological capabilities. Can these not be leveraged with know-how and fortitude to meaningfully address inequities in health?
— Dr. Penny Heaton, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute
“A Brief History of Medicine: from Hippocrates to Gene Therapy”
By Paul Strathern
Among the many histories of medicine, Paul Strathern’s narrative stands out for its lively prose and colorful portraits of figures who broke with dogma and proved new paradigms. Even the expert reader will find much that is novel and nuanced, not only in stories about prominent characters like Galen and Harvey, but less well known individuals like the Venerable Bede, an English monk who revived Greek and Roman knowledge during the Dark Ages, and Al-Razi, an Islamic scholar who challenged Aristotle’s prevailing notions with experimental data and showed that pediatric disorders need not be viewed as untreatable and hopeless. Each chapter offers a rich tableau depicting advances in medical thinking based on astute observation and rigorous induction. Strathern brilliantly succeeds in both educating and entertaining his reader, a perfect blend for a summer treat.
— Dr. Jerome Groopman, New Yorker staff writer and author; Recanati Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School
“The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us”
By Richard Prum
Whether you agree with Prum or not, his case for renewed attention to Darwin’s theory of sexual selection — that considerations of beauty, and not just functional adaptation, shape evolution — is eye-opening. The book also reminds us that politics (in this case, 19th-century disapproval of Darwin’s views on female mate choice) can influence what we are taught about science. Even if you are skeptical, Prum will make you think twice about the natural world, and will definitely change how you look at ducks.
— Ron Klain, President Obama’s Ebola czar during the West African outbreak
“Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom”
By Katherine Eban
In her fierce and fearless book, “Bottle of Lies,” the investigative journalist Katherine Eban takes us on a journey through the loosely regulated and often corrupt manufacture of generic drugs. Weaving together the story of a terrified but determined whistleblower from India, shady drug producers from China, and a notably timid FDA, Eban’s compelling book should serve as cautionary tale and a wake-up call for consumers, manufacturers, and physicians — “should” being the operative word.
— Deborah Blum, author of “The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century” and director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT
“How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence”
By Michael Pollan
With cannabis medicine now getting the attention it deserves, Michael Pollan has done a tremendous job at digging into the history of psychedelic use, both recreationally and in therapy, together with his own observations as a new psychedelic experimenter at the age of 60. All in all, a comprehensive history of the topic, together with interviews from key psychedelic researchers, and a call for serious researchers to think twice about hasty judgments surrounding this interesting compound.
— Jon Calder, Belfast, Northern Ireland
“Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons”
By Kris Newby
“Bitten” is a riveting narrative that digs into the origins of the Lyme disease epidemic. It connects many dots with compelling evidence and page-turning storytelling that point to the likelihood that a bio-weaponized tick program gone awry could have contributed to the more virulent forms of tick-borne illnesses that have been wreaking havoc on unwitting people for the past five decades. Doctors are not well-trained on tick-borne illness, diagnostics are inadequate, and there are no career tracks in the field other than a few courageous pioneers. Biotech is largely on the sidelines. Yet millions of people are being disabled. Perhaps this book will help stir some action. After all, we all are just one bite away from a nightmare illness.
— Nancy Dougherty, Boston
“How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain”
By Gregory Berns
Fabulous book for anyone interested in the realities of research. Getting MRI data on dogs to confirm the similarities in where dogs and human brains respond to stimuli sounds like a good idea. Getting permission to get the dogs into the places where there are MRIs, getting the dogs used to the MRI, selecting real-life animals, and the implications for the experimental conclusions is very different from what usually shows up in methods and results.
— Joanna Haas, Boston
“The Perfect Predator: A Scientist’s Race to Save Her Husband from a Deadly Superbug”
By Steffanie Strathdee and Thomas Patterson
Riveting account of a scientist trying to save her husband through a combination of sheer will, determination, and cutting-edge science. It’s an amazing blend of mystery, thriller, and microbiology.
— Mallory Johnson, Berkeley, Calif.
“The Billion Dollar Molecule: One Company’s Quest for the Perfect Drug”
By Barry Werth
“Billion Dollar Molecule” is a thrilling story about the development of a now powerful pharmaceutical company, its revolutionary approach in structure-based drug development, and how closely it came to failing along the way. At a time when people doubt the justifications of pricing for pharmaceutical drugs, peeking at the risks involved in development and the arduous journeys of the scientists involved through this story could add nuance to the conversation.
— Eric Kishel, Buffalo, N.Y.
“Well: What We Need to Talk About When We Talk About Health”
By Sandro Galea
“Well” moves beyond talk of health disparities as simply numbers and statistics, dissecting the factors that influence health and well-being. This is an excellent read for health professionals or anyone interested in better understanding all the variables that impact our decisions and behaviors, like power, politics, and luck.
— Jamie Klufts, Boston
“The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right”
By Atul Gawande
Years after reading it, the message and themes of this book still resonate with me. One for everyone involved in health.
— Eliza Metcalfe, Melbourne, Australia
“Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions”
By Richard Harris
“Rigor Mortis” delves into data reproducibility and scientific rigor in biomedical research. Using deft anecdotes and commentary, Harris explores how sociocultural forces and perverse incentives in funding mechanisms can conspire to create a dirge of confidence in the research process. Anyone interested in learning about how flawed science undermines medicine should pick up this book for a relatively quick and incisive read.
— Kyle Penrod, Providence, R.I.
“The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements”
By Sam Kean
This book is an entertaining and amazing look at the history of the periodic table and the discovery of the elements. Kean writes in a narrative fashion that gripped me from the very first page. This book is a must for lovers of science, history, and science history.
— Katie Reeves, Augusta, Ga.
“Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town”
By Nick Reding
The 2016 election sparked a national obsession with reporting from “flyover country” — a hasty attempt from the national media to remember the forgotten swathes of land between the coasts. But some of the resulting coverage was so full of caricatures it seemed like just another version of flying over. Stumbling across “Methland” in the public library provided a strong antidote to those datelines without depth. Nick Reding’s portraits of small-town Iowans who are cooking, using, or working against meth are so deeply reported that you feel as if you’ve met these people in the flesh. The details are striking — kids mixing “crank” in soda bottles as they tootle around on their bikes, a dealer investing in car selling and horse racing as fronts for her drug empire — but the book also has an impressive sweep: It chronicles rural economies overtaken by agricultural behemoths, towns left behind by everyone with the means to leave, and public health and existential crises ensnaring the people who remain.
— Eric Boodman, reporter
“Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain”
By Abby Norman
Any woman whose pain has been dismissed as being “part of what it means to be a woman” will highly relate to this book. “Ask Me About My Uterus” is the story of Abby Norman, whose long and frustrating journey of finding out what was causing her excruciating pain, unexplainable weight loss, and a host of other symptoms meant she had to drop out of college her freshman year. Norman describes how relationships and hobbies all fell by the wayside as the constant pain kept her at home. Only after she got a job at a hospital and spent hours educating herself did Norman finally get a diagnosis of endometriosis. The book weaves together Norman’s own story as well as research and evidence to indicate how medicine continues to ignore women’s pain. I learned a lot of things, but how to be more assertive when I visit with a physician is at the top of the list!
— Shraddha Chakradhar, reporter and Morning Rounds writer
“Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of us Can Learn From the Strange Science of Recovery”
By Christie Aschwanden
Like many who live life with a daily dose of sweat, I’m always on the lookout for the best ways to recover from exercise and get myself back out the door. In her new book, science journalist and athlete Christie Aschwanden deftly unravels the complex web of science, pseudoscience, and downright bogus claims in the world of exercise recovery. She takes the reader into infrared saunas, ice baths, and float spas and tests techniques I’d never heard of (meditation headbands are a thing?) meant to help athletes bounce back from their hard efforts.
— Brittany Flaherty, news intern
By Gary Shteyngart
“Lake Success” is the story of Barry Cohen, a superlatively successful hedge fund manager whose enviable Manhattan life comes hideously unglued after he makes an ill-advised bet on what is clearly a stand-in for Valeant Pharmaceuticals. What ensues is a never sanguine, always empathetic, reliably funny portrait of a fabulously wealthy person who seems to have forgotten the concept of failure. It’s also a fascinating character study for those of us biotech schnooks who looked at alleged insider traders like Mathew Martoma and wondered how on earth they thought they’d get away with it all. Plus there’s fancy watches, generational angst, and a meditation on the creeping financialization of everything that promises to bring about a new Gilded Age. You know, beach stuff.
— Damian Garde, national biotech reporter
“Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love”
By Dani Shapiro
Wherever she speaks during her book tour for “Inheritance,” memoirist Dani Shapiro is approached by people who, like her, discovered through a DNA spit test that their biological father is not who they thought he was, and that their family history is a lot more twisted than they realized. Indeed, when I heard her in Boston, a man stood up during the Q&A and announced he’d learned he was the product of a sperm donor who turned out to be a fertility doctor who’d fathered dozens of children. Shapiro’s book is a very personal story, but clearly one that resonates broadly in our DNA-obsessed age.
— Gideon Gil, managing editor
“The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought The American Ideal West”
By David McCullough
A great way to gain perspective on the impact of modern medicine is to consider life before it arrived. McCullough’s account of the pioneers who settled America’s Northwest Territory — an area that includes the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin — offers a window into the ruggedness required of both doctors and patients who stared down deadly illnesses in the unbroken wilderness with few defenses. Episodic disease outbreaks swept across the frontier like wildfire, often decimating settlements and taking the lives of multiple children in the same family. As a father living in present-day Ohio, it is hard to imagine the panic this must have instilled, and the resolve required to push forward despite the heart-wrenching costs. But this book has given me fresh insight and a few reasons to reconsider my own grievances in the relative utopia we’ve carved out of the Wild West.
— Casey Ross, national technology correspondent
“Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets”
By Luke Dittrich
The book weaves the neuroscience legend of Henry Molaison with author Luke Dittrich’s own family dramas. After Dittrich’s grandfather operated on Molaison’s brain in an effort to treat his debilitating epilepsy, he wasn’t able to form any short-term memories. For decades after the surgery, researchers worked with Molaison to better understand how human memory works. Patient H.M.’s story is interesting enough. But when the story is mentioned, the surgeon is usually a minor player. This time, Dittrich brings his grandfather to life — and uses his family’s own history to explore some of the darker chapters in neuroscience history.
— Kate Sheridan, reporter
“Darius The Great is Not Okay”
By Adib Khorram
Adib Khorram’s debut novel is about many things: identity, immigration, family, friendship. It’s also about living with clinical depression as a teen, and being a teen with a parent who has depression. Khorram is able to give readers a window into living with mental illness without making it the sole focus of the characters or their stories. And while it’s technically a young adult book, I’d recommend it to adults of all ages.
— Megan Thielking, reporter