Keele Books of Life



Books can be dangerous. The best ones should be labeled "This could change your life."

~Helen Exley

Keele Books of Life

Do health students read? We assume that they still open a textbook from time to time as well as looking at Wikipedia, but do they read literature, classics and modern novels and poetry?

We fear that in our increasingly hectic world with its emphasis on immediacy and visual media, the value and simple pleasure of reading a book may have been lost.

For this reason we have created an on-line selection of suggested humanities based books that may encourage our medical students to read, explore the human condition, enrich their professional and personal lives, as well as introducing them to the pleasures of reading for its own sake.

In order to create the list of recommended books we invited University staff to suggest books from any genre of literature which they have enjoyed and would recommend personally.

We have included books that encompass a broad range of human experiences and these are not necessarily related to illness.

This list is not an addition to existing lists of core medical texts which students use during their training, it is a selection for students to dip into and delve through at leisure with no expectation that they have to do so.

The final choice of books appearing on the list has excluded those which clearly might cause offence to the majority.

The website provides an opportunity for students to review and comment on any books that they have read and provides a link for each book to external reviews and places to purchase the books.


Bruce Summers, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon, Honorary Clinical Senior Lecturer at the University of Keele Medical School and Lead Tutor for Medical Humanities


Website design and construction Dr Roger Bloor, Retired Consultant in Addiction Psychiatry, Former Senior Lecturer in Addiction Psychiatry, Honorary Clinical Lecturer. University of Keele Medical School


A space to think about the challenges medicine presents.


The medical profession historically has been intimately connected to literature. Up to the sixteenth century at the earliest medical degrees were wholly concerned with learning ancient texts; in the eighteenth century, even after the addition of practical anatomy and ‘walking the wards’ to medical training, the published literary case note was a vitally important way for qualified doctors to keep up with their fields. What is more, doctors have been among the foremost creative writers of their day, in both literary and populist output. For every Tobias Smollett (look him up) there is an Arthur Conan Doyle.

Just as importantly now, though, there is growing recognition of the importance of narratives for communication between patients and clinicians inside and outside the surgery or consultation. Patient narratives arguably appeared first on the scene, including Fanny Burney’s description of a mastectomy without benefit of anaesthetic, but practitioners quickly joined in. Samuel Warren’s Diary of a Late Physician published in the 1830s started a trend which now includes Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm and Gabriel Weston’s Direct Red.

Reading these or other prose texts cannot, of course, deliver a quantifiable unit of empathy, self-awareness or practitioner resilience. What they can do, however, is indicate the very wide sweep of human experience in receipt or transmission of medicine, and offer the medical student or qualified clinician space to think about the challenges medicine presents. We might now deprecate the repugnant gender assumptions in the famous quote from Russian playwright (and doctor) Anton Chekov:

“Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature my mistress; when I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other”

Questionable conjugal morality and gender stereotypes aside, though, what Chekov was describing was a cross-disciplinary appreciation of science and art, and the way in which oscillation between both can be more satisfying and illuminating than concentration on one alone. Therefore this website is designed to provide a way in to literature for overly-busy medical students. Each book has been recommended by a colleague at Keele for the light it may shed on the range of human experience.


Professor Allanah Tomkins

Head of Research for Humanities

School of Humanities

Keele University

A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.–

William Styron


Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it

P.J. ORourke


Great books help you understand,

and they help you feel understood.

–John Green