Three Grand Books: Genetics, Life and Death, and Humankind


July 11, 2016

It's summertime, and I thought it might be helpful to share some ideas on a few great books that I have found mind-bending.

The Gene: An Intimate History

Siddhartha Mukherjee is no stranger to the medical community or the Medscape audience. He's the only person I've interviewed twice for One-on-One, and these were related to his two prior books: The Emperor of All Maladies and The Laws of Medicine. Now, he's written an opus called The Gene: An Intimate History, which I've reviewed in depth at Cell.

To be succinct, Sid is one of a rarefied group of leading physician-authors who can make anything interesting. In his first book, which may well be the best one written on cancer, his oncology practice patients were helpful in conveying many stories. In this book, which traces the origin of genetics and takes us well into the field's future, he delves into the history of mental illness in his family. It's the tour de force book on genetics and, as was the case with Emperor of All Maladies, it is being made into a PBS documentary series to be broadcasted within the next year.

When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi, a brilliant neurosurgery resident at Stanford, learns he has stage IV lung cancer. But even before he got sick, he was fascinated with the question of what makes life meaningful. He wrote this book while he was dying, and his wife Lucy, an internist, ultimately finished it. The writing is so remarkable that it's no surprise that this was the number-one nonfiction book all over the world, and it has already been translated into more than 40 languages. How can a young man's death be such an incredible inspiration to others? If you don't know, you'll find out by reading this remarkable book.

I've also recently interviewed Lucy Kalanithi for Medscape—her perspective is not to be missed.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

I had the chance to meet and participate on a panel with Yuval Noah Harari, who is a professor of history at Hebrew University, one of the leading universities in Israel. He's a brilliant historian and author, and has undertaken something that is quite extraordinary: tracing the beginnings of human beings to the present time. (It's especially noteworthy that Yuval is only 40 years old!)

The book is truly captivating as the author moves back and forth from tens of thousands of years ago to the present, which makes for fascinating contrasts and likenesses. From his deep research and his exceptional insights, it's hard not to come away awestruck. Here's just one example taken from hundreds: "Confucius, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad would have been bewildered if you told them that in order to understand the human mind and cure its illnesses you must first study statistics."

I'll be interviewing Yuval on Medscape soon. And he just let me know that he has a new book coming out early next year: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. I can't wait to read it.

I think all three of these books will be regarded as classics for years to come, and each should qualify as core curriculum in medical schools.

Hope this is helpful, and have a great summer.

Best regards,
Eric J. Topol, MD
Editor-in-Chief, Medscape

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