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Meghan O'Rourke recommends 6 books on understanding pain and illness

The 2022 National Book Award finalist recommends works by Susan Sontag, Natasha Trethewey, and more

Meghan O'Rourke is the author of The Invisible Kingdom, a 2022 National Book Award finalist, which explores a "silent epidemic" of chronic illness that afflicts tens of millions of Americans. Below, she recommends six works that shaped her thinking.

Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag (1978) 

In this brief, startlingly original, and audacious essay, Sontag argued that we often psychologize and stigmatize illnesses that are poorly understood. Writing against the idea of the "cancer personality," she starkly admonishes us not to confound biological illness with psychology. This book was the catalyst for The Invisible Kingdom. It taught me how to see what was really behind our cultural discomfort with invisible illness. Buy it here

The Pain Chronicles by Melanie Thernstrom (2010) 

In this hybrid of memoir and research, Thernstrom braids her own story of chronic pain with literary and historical accounts of pain, and incisively lays out how little we understand about chronic pain. I will never forget her riveting accounts of surgery before pain medications and anesthesia. Buy it here.

In the Land of Pain by Alphonse Daudet (1929)

A brilliant, lapidary work by the 19th-century French novelist who lived with — and died from — tertiary syphilis before the disease was medically understood. A collection of fragments, it amounts, in a sense, to an eloquent existential outcry. This book articulated more about being ill than almost anything else I've read. Buy it here.

On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf (1926)

Woolf is the master of writing about inner sensation. In this book-length essay, she pointedly notes that we have very little good writing about pain, and lays out the "poverty" of the English language when it comes to describing the body. We can't see what we don't have words for. Buy it here.

Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir by Natasha Trethewey (2020) 

This searing memoir by a former poet laureate is about writing of trauma that resists language and is hard to see clearly. It tells the story of the murder of Trethewey's mother by her abusive ex-husband, and is a model for writing authentically about uncertainty and that which we can never fully know. Buy it here

The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine by Anne Harrington (2008)

A fascinating look at how we think about the interconnection of the mind and the body. Harrington, a historian, recounts the many irrational and enduring cultural stories we tell about being ennobled by our suffering. A treasure trove of fascinating history, digestibly told. Buy it here.

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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