Contagious Reading: Scary Medical Books Where the Truth Reads Like Fiction

Shelf RenewalWith all the talk of Ebola in the news, you might find that your copy of The Hot Zone (1994) is currently checked out. But never fear, there are a plethora of riveting and entirely “readable” medical books waiting to scare inform patrons about something else! And I’ll bet people have no idea what is waiting for them in the nonfiction stacks. Librarians know what I mean—how many times has a patron not realized that something was nonfiction, because it read like a novel? A large part of the mystery to patrons is that we shelve these books under the call number for the disease or the science they discuss. Perhaps we need a section for “Medical Memoirs”? “Medical Musings”?

The Coming Plague by Laurie GarrettThe Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance, by Laurie Garrett

Garrett cites the roles of global warming, oceanic pollution, and shortsighted politicians in helping spread disease.

The Demon in the Freezer, by Richard Preston

This reads like a medical thriller by Robin Cook. Just when the world thought smallpox was eradicated by vaccinations . . . it’s BACK!!! A good choice to scare people out of their Ebola fears.

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen

Spillover was shortlisted for the 2013 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction and is a frightening, fascinating look at global diseases waiting to jump from animals to humans. Keep a bottle of hand sanitizer nearby while you read.

Virus Hunter: Thirty Years of Battling Hot Viruses around the World, by C. J. Peters

The author, a former CDC worker, shares details about generally ignored medical struggles in less-industrialized nations and warnings about the myriad human factors—from crowded slums, agricultural monocultures, and bureaucratic infighting to reduced science funding and managed health care—that make a future viral disaster possible, perhaps even probable.

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While the next few suggestions are far less frightening, they’re worth a look since they’re hidden amongst the Merck Manual and the PDR . . . why not draw some attention to them?

Bad Blood:  The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment by James H. Jones

Like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, below, Bad Blood is deeply rooted in racial tension. For 40 years, the U.S. government conducted secret studies on poor black sharecroppers—the men were never told they had syphilis, and they were never given treatment options.

Delivering Doctor Amelia: The Story of a Gifted Young Obstetrician’s Error and the Psychologist Who Helped Her, by Dan Shapiro

This one is probably hiding in your mental disorders section or worse, your pregnancy books. It’s neither—it’s the story of a young doctor who, after being sued for medical malpractice, becomes so depressed that she decides to quit medicine entirely.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Writing with a novelist’s artistry, a biologist’s expertise, and the zeal of an investigative reporter, Skloot tells a truly astonishing story of racism and poverty, science and conscience, spirituality and family driven by a galvanizing inquiry into the sanctity of the body and the very nature of the life force.

Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers,  by Mary Roach

This is a book I hate seeing abandoned in the 600s. A humorous (yet “deadly” serious, ha ha), informative, and fascinating look at what happens to us once we shuffle off this mortal coil.

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About the Author:

Rebecca Vnuk is the editor for Collection Management and Library Outreach at Booklist. She is also the author of 3 reader’s-advisory nonfiction books: Read On…Women’s Fiction (2009), Women’s Fiction: A Guide to Popular Reading Interests (2014), and Women’s Fiction Authors: A Research Guide (2009). Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_RVnuk.

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