Admirer of physician writers and John le Carré

Dr. Atul Gawande likes to get books in multiple forms: hardcover, digital, and audio. Dr. Atul Gawande likes to get books in multiple forms: hardcover, digital, and audio. (Fred Field)
By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / January 16, 2011

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Years ago, ambitious parents just wanted their children to be doctors. Atul Gawande has raised the bar, forcing us all to explain why we haven’t become surgeons who also write for The New Yorker, teach at Harvard Medical School, publish best-selling books, and influence national health-care legislation. Gawande, who grew up in Ohio and now lives in Newton, practices general and endocrine surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He is the author of “Complications,’’ “Better,’’ and most recently “The Checklist Manifesto.’’

What have you read lately?

I just finished “True History of the Kelly Gang’’ by Peter Carey. I had just come from my first time in the Southern Hemisphere, in Australia. Ned Kelly was this outlaw, but an iconic figure for Australia. The voice that Carey sustains for this 19th-century renegade, from age 12 to his death in an ambush by the police — that voice is amazing. When I travel, I like reading fiction set in that area. Hopefully great fiction, like Peter Carey, but sometimes just a thriller.

It’s interesting that you read thrillers — suspense is so critical to medical narrative.

I love thrillers. Whether it’s Frederick Forsyth, or [John] le Carré. . . . A friend of mine recommended this series by Richard Stark called the Parker novels, which I’ve been devouring.

I never really study them, but inherently the question is: What’s going to happen next? When I’m writing a piece — even about health-care policy — it doesn’t work unless you’re saying, “Huh. That’s interesting. So what’s going to happen?’’ I try to marinate in some sense of that dramatic buildup.

What other kinds of books do you read?

I try to range as widely as possible, partly because I’m interested in analogies and parallels across different fields. My most recent nonfiction books included the first volume from Edmund Morris on Teddy Roosevelt; a book about hiring, about how to interview people; and “The Mythical Man-Month,’’ about software engineering.

E-books or paper?

I’m floating between multiple media. I really wish you could buy the hardcover book and it would come with the digital download and audible version. I spend stupid amounts of money because I’m usually buying my books in at least two formats.

Who do you consider great medical writers for a mainstream audience?

Oliver Sacks remains my hero to this day. He was one of the first medical writers I read. The other was Lewis Thomas, who is no longer alive but is just heroic to me.

Is there good writing about health and medicine by non-doctors?

I think some of the best writing. The doctor almost knows too much. One of the best pieces of writing about health care, to my mind, is “A Farewell to Arms’’ — a third of it takes place in an Italian hospital. Hemingway is unsparing and hilarious in his depiction of doctors and what it’s like to be a patient. Joan Didion’s book “The Year of Magical Thinking.’’ A book by Anne Fadiman, “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.’’ These are extraordinary books.

What other nonfiction writers do you try to learn from?

George Orwell is a pinnacle writer, for his combination of moral insight and literary writing. I just finished Tony Judt’s “The Memory Chalet,’’ which has several gems of chapters. I read everything Adam Gopnik publishes. Gopnik is amazing at taking small moments and making them incredibly meaningful and interesting.

The writing I love has something memorable in it — an image, a smell. It’s the connection between the moment and the whole concept, weaving the micro together with the macro so that it has a hold on people — that’s writing.

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