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Best American (medical?) essays of 2012

Posted by Dr. Suzanne Koven  December 29, 2012 01:38 PM

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bestamessays12,jpg.jpg My husband and I don't exchange holiday gifts. We don't not exchange them--we're not protesting the commercialization of the season or anything--it's just how we roll. There is one exception though: every year he buys me the annual edition of Best American Essays. Even though I could buy it myself, even though I routinely do buy books for myself, traditionally, he buys this one for me.

I love Best American. It always contains great writing from expected places like The New Yorker, Harper's, and The Atlantic. But it also features essays from lesser known journals with wonderful names like Normal School, The Hedgehog Review and Lapham's Quarterly.

This year's volume, edited by New York Times columnist David Brooks, includes no fewer than eight essays on medical themes. 8 out of 24! One-third!

If I were feeling more energetic I would dig through all of my Best American Essays volumes going back to the first one in 1986, count the numbers of medically-themed essays, figure out the percentage of the various tables of contents they make up, and demonstrate that these kinds of essays are represented more heavily than they once were--but you'll just have to trust me.

Maybe the same phenomenon that's made memoir so popular in recent years also accounts for the increased numbers of narratives about illness by both patients and caregivers. Maybe the Internet has made medical knowledge more widely accessible than it once was. Maybe--my vote--illnesses and the stories they inspire are just plain interesting.

In any case, here are those eight medically-themed essays in this year's Best American Essays, with, where available, links to their original sources. In some cases, the original essay had a different title or slightly different content.
Again, happy reading, and happy new year!

"The Crazy State of Psychiatry" by Marcia Angell from The New York Review of Books: Physician and former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine takes a hard and controversial look at why so many of us are now taking psychiatric drugs.

"You Owe Me" by Miah Arnold, from The Michigan Quarterly Review: A beautiful and unflinching account by a teacher about her writing class for children in a cancer hospital.

"The Good Short Life" by Dudley Clendinen from The New York Times Sunday Review: A journalist writes about grief, grace, and his experience with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease).

"Dr. Don" by Peter Hessler from The New Yorker: This account of a druggist in rural Colorado reads like a short story.

"My Father/My Husband" by David J. Lawless from The Prism: An unadorned portrayal of daily life with a spouse suffering from dementia, this is one of the most beautiful expressions of marital love you'll ever read.

"The Bitch Is Back" by Sandra Tsing Loh from The Atlantic: What if menopause is normal and all those "other" years were the exception? In a reappraisal of Christiane Northrup's The Wisdom of Menopause, Loh asks some provocative, and funny, questions.

"How Doctors Die" by Ken Murray from Zocalo Public Square: Murray, a retired physician, has some very firm ideas about what he wants--and especially about what he doesn't want--when his death is imminent.

"Killing My Body To Save My Mind" by Lauren Slater from Elle: Would you become obese to treat your depression? Lauren Slater, prolific medicine/science writer and past editor of Best American Essays did just that--and revisited some centuries' old concepts about mind and body in the process.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Suzanne Koven, M.D. practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She writes a monthly column for the Globe's G Health section and her essays have appeared in the More »


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