Her first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown), has spent fifteen weeks (and counting) on the Times best-sellers list.
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, And the Collision of Two Cultures (1997)
By Anne Fadiman
An important and beautiful tale of a cultural miscommunication, a tragic clash between scientists and nonscientists, that doesn’t demonize either side.
In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (1985)
By Daniel J. Kevles
A thick, meticulously footnoted history that I inhaled faster than I read most novels. Unfortunately, it’s nonfiction: an astonishing chapter of U.S. history in which scientists attempted to “improve” the human race by eliminating minorities, “immorality,” and “inferiors” through selective breeding and worse.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: And Other Clinical Tales (1985)
By Oliver Sacks
I love anything by Oliver Sacks, but this collection of essays about his patients and their fantastical array of neurologic ailments was the first I fell for. He brings himself and his readers into the minds and lives of his patients, reminding us that there are always people behind the science.
Confessions of a Knife (1979)
By Richard Selzer
I still have my falling-apart undergraduate copy of Selzer’s collection of essays about being a surgeon. The one that haunted me: female surgeons removing the breast of a female patient, a “sisterly” ritual.
Love at Goon Park (2002)
By Deborah Blum
A wonderful character study of Harry Harlow, the dark, eccentric scientist whose amazing, often disturbing research on primates led to much of our understanding of child-rearing. Her new The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York is riveting, too.
And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1987)
By Randy Shilts
One of the most important science books ever written, with storytelling few can match. The first piece I read by Shilts was an essay called “Talking AIDS to Death,” a follow-up to And the Band Played On. I finished it and said to myself, I want to write like that guy.
A Long Line of Cells (1990)
By Lewis Thomas
No one has ever written as clearly or beautifully about science. I fell for him with this line: “My cells are no longer the pure line entities I was raised with … I like to think that they work in my interest, that each breath they draw for me, but perhaps it is they who walk through the local park in the early morning, sensing my senses, listening to my music, thinking my thoughts.”
His Brother’s Keeper: A Story From the Edge of Medicine (2004)
By Jonathan Weiner
The tale of a mechanical engineer who turned himself into a geneticist with hopes of saving his brother’s life. I just started reading Weiner’s brand-new Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality, which is bizarre, fascinating, and fun.
The Best American Science Writing
Edited By Jesse Cohen
The Best American Science and Nature Writing
Edited By Tim Folger
I’m cheating by listing two titles for my last pick, and they actually account for a whole shelf because they’re annual anthologies. But they’re essential: I own every edition of each, and I read them religiously.