Five Best Books on Healing

From a Wall Street Journal story by Gavin Francis headlined “Five Best Books on Healing”:

By John Berger (2012)

1. Our notions of healing and recovery must surely begin with childhood—with a mother’s “kiss it better,” or bowls of chicken soup served in bed. In “Cataract,” the art critic and novelist John Berger wrote beautifully of how cataract surgery restored all the vivid beauty of his childhood world, saturated as it was with color, and how routine eye surgery can be transformative for someone’s quality of life, “comparable with the removal of a particular form of forgetfulness.”

What patients experience afterward “resembles a kind of visual renaissance.” For Berger, who died in 2017, healing was never passive. “A surgical intervention to remove cataracts gives back to the eyes much of their lost talent,” he wrote. “Talent, however, invariably implies a certain amount of effort and endurance as well as grace and benefit.”

An Unquiet Mind
By Kay Redfield Jamison (1995)

2. About a third of my work as a primary-care physician concerns mental, not physical, health. Kay Redfield Jamison’s “An Unquiet Mind” is one of the most profound—and profoundly helpful—books concerning recovery from bipolar illness. Ms. Jamison frames “healing” in its broadest sense—as much a coming to terms with illness as it can be a resolution. “Although I continue to have emergences of my old summer manias,” she writes, “they have been gutted not only of most of their terror, but of most of their earlier indescribable beauty and glorious rush as well.”

She writes about how the best doctors tolerate ambiguity and complexity, yet remain decisive and inspire confidence. She’s frank, too, on how her own recovery is a ceaseless work in progress: “We all build internal sea walls to keep at bay the sadnesses of life and the often overwhelming forces within our minds,” she writes. “In whatever way we do this—through love, work, family, faith, friends, denial, alcohol, drugs, or medication—we build these walls, stone by stone, over a lifetime.”

By Maggie Nelson (2009)

3. The word “patient” means “sufferer.” Is it possible to say that one sufferer deserves sympathy while another should pull herself together? This is one of the many questions posed by Maggie Nelson in “Bluets,” an extraordinary book about her slow healing from a broken heart while caring for a friend rendered quadriplegic. “Is it a related form of aggrandizement, to inflate a heartbreak into a sort of allegory?”

Both women are infuriated by the idea that suffering serves a purpose. “One would be hard-pressed to come up with a spiritual lesson that demands becoming a quadriparalytic.” Life is fragile and unpredictable—it can throw a calamitous spinal injury at you as easily as a heartbreak. Ms. Nelson’s paralyzed friend has no time for platitudes: “She is too busy asking, in this changed form, what makes a livable life, and how she can live it.”

Intoxicated by My Illness
By Anatole Broyard (1992)

4. When the literary critic Anatole Broyard was diagnosed with prostate cancer he felt a paradoxical sense of relief, even elation, that went alongside “the startled awareness that one day something, whatever it might be, was going to interrupt my leisurely progress. . . . I realized for the first time that I don’t have forever.” The essays he wrote about the ordeal of his treatment, and his new awareness of his mortality, remain stunningly original and inspirational more than 30 years since his death. He calls on us to cherish life and health in the knowledge that it can be taken away. “As I look ahead, I feel like a man who has awakened from a long afternoon nap to find the evening stretched out before me. . . . I see the balance of my life—everything comes in images now—as a beautiful paisley shawl thrown over a grand piano.”

Broyard wanted a physician who could understand his need for drama and metaphor, someone who might transform his experience of illness by reframing it as part of the arc of his life. “If the patient can feel that he has earned his illness—that his sickness represents the grand decadence that follows a great flowering—he may look upon the ruin of his body as tourists look upon the great ruins of antiquity.”

I Am, I Am, I Am
By Maggie O’Farrell (2017)

5. The novelist Maggie O’Farrell has written only one work of nonfiction—an unforgettable memoir of 17 occasions she came close to death but recovered. Each chapter is exquisitely rendered; there are knife attacks and near-drownings, dysentery and plane failures. One of the most powerful concerns an episode of childhood encephalitis that left her unable to walk, and that still affects her balance and strength. Her doctors were distant and dismissive, but the chapter is a hymn of praise to the physical therapists who restored her to life: “That they believed I was capable of movement, of motion, of recovery, when the doctors didn’t, meant that I walked.”

Convalescence, for Ms. O’Farrell, is something that can separate one from the turbulence and dynamism of life, but also grant a kind of clarity. She reminds us that self-compassion is an underrated virtue, and that we shouldn’t compare our recovery with those of others. Modern medicine is limited in its power, and doctors and nurses are more like gardeners than they are like mechanics—there to guide a natural process, not simply to replace broken parts.

Selected by Gavin Francis, the author, most recently, of “Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence.”

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