By December 12, 2007 1 Comments Read More →

Why We Need to Talk about Books 1: The Last Story

If we were divine beings and knew how to read books perfectly, we wouldn’t need to talk about them. Unfortunately we’re far from divine readers. We have short attention spans. We have limited knowledge. We’re easily distracted. We miss details. And sometimes we miss the whole point. Occasionally half a dozen smart, committed readers banding together into a book group can correct that. Here’s a perfect example:

I loved every story in Vincent Lam’s new Giller Prize-winning collection of stories, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, but I hated the last one. The book is a well-written collection of linked stories following four idealistic young medical students as they become doctors and cross paths professionally and romantically. Each of the stories is morally complex. There’s a passionate youthful idealism just under the surface.

Then comes the last story: an inexplicably negative chain of vignettes composing the frustrating, rage-filled day of a hair-trigger, whining, overworked doctor on the night shift. The doctor is grumpy, self-pitying and mean-spirited. In my review of the book, I said the last story should not have been included. When I met Vincent Lam at the annual bookseller tradeshow in September, I shook his hand and congratulated him on the brilliance of the collection.

I said nothing about what we both knew was my issue: the last story.

Then came the University Book Store’s monthly book club meeting in Seattle’s University District. One of my favorite members attended, Mary Owen, a doctor of internal medicine at Harborview.  She felt entirely differently.

In a later email, Mary summarized her response by saying: “I actually thought the last story was the best and the most real. It’s the ultimate and very real burnout that almost every doc is feeling these days. Road rage, disinterest in a patient’s concerns (the lady with the rash), willingness to lie or stretch the truth to get a patient to participate in some study or other (the rollerblader with chest pain who finally agrees to take the thrombolytic therapy). Notice, they aren’t even people. The bradycardic is in the AMR, another bradycardic is being brought in on a stretcher. The patients and doctors have become robots in a tedious, exhausting dance. Ouch! That last story should be incorporated into every medical school curriculum!”

And I had considered it the flaw in the collection.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

1 Comment on "Why We Need to Talk about Books 1: The Last Story"

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  1. david.wright@spl.org' David Wright says:

    This reminds me of the work of Robert Coles and his literature classes for doctors, lawyers, and teachers, in which they would focus on just such works that provide the kind of human insight into a profession that the ‘professional literature’ often misses. Coles’s “The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination” is a great introduction to this work, and something Mary would really enjoy, I bet.

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