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Volume 1, Issue 4
Winter 2005:

Why Read? An Emerging Canon

Sara Maurer, Brian Maurer and David Elpern

Cell 2 Soul. 2005 Winter; 1(4):a8

Storytelling dates back before recorded history began and helps define us as a species. In Gilgamesh1, one of the oldest stories in western literature, the protagonist's search for the elixir of immortality takes him to the outermost boundaries of the earth — and beyond. Centuries later we are still searching for similar prescriptions from modern healers of many persuasions.

The best and truest stories have been told and retold for millennia. They are constantly modified, edited and expanded. Some scholars postulate that there may be only a few archetypal stories and that all the rest are just variations on common themes.

Traditionally storytelling began with oral accounts passed from elders to children. Audiences grew as the dawn of writing and printing bloomed, eventually leading to today's age of movies and multimedia. The stories we hear, read, or perhaps see in cinema have the potential to help us shape our lives, beliefs, and behaviors. They educate us as children, and engross us as adults. They can both heal and be dangerous as well.

In the Appendix to Aequanimitas2, Sir William Osler gives a list of 10 books which he felt would be of value for medical students to read3. Over the past 100 years tastes have changed; only a few of Osler's recommendations are widely read today.

The editors of Cell 2 Soul and Dermanities are launching a new section called "Why Read? — Personal Canons", conceived as a forum to share those works which resonate with us. We invited some friends, colleagues and teachers to share works which for them are canonical — those books, poems, perhaps movies which they keep returning to — in the literary economy of the Latin poet, Horace, the works which mix the useful and sweet (qui misquit utile et dulci).

David Biro, one of our contributors, expressed it well:

The truth is that I'd like my physician to have read beyond books dealing with doctors and patients, illness and death — all the great works of literature that have moved me in the past, like David Copperfied and Father Goriot and Of Human Bondage — and that continue to do so in the present, like Love in the Times of Cholera, Cold Mountain, The Reader and Blindness. I say this not because I
necessarily believe that reading will make a physician more caring and sympathetic, but because it can't help but enlarge him or her, broaden his perspectives — so that his focus is not just the disease and its treatment. In this way perhaps he may come to possess an inkling, maybe even an understanding, of the bigger picture.

We applaud Dr. Biro's sentiments and add that these lists are only a way for us to share our preferences with others. Not in a controlling way. Not as missionaries or proselytizers. Not as professors. Rather, in the spirit of bringing one's best friends together — the quick and the scribbled. To us, these works are really "alive." It is our hope that sometimes, if the chemistry succeeds, our readers will connect.

The Canons will be housed on the Cell 2 Soul and Dermanities sites under the heading "Why Read? — Personal Canons." To date we have gathered over 40 personal lists. This is very much a collection in progress. We encourage our readers to submit their own canons. Don't be shy! Please follow the format of Professor Karen Kwitter's Canon, which appears in this issue. Additional details and guidelines can be found in Canon Philosophy and Submission Guidelines


1 Gilgamesh: a new English version [by] Stephen Mitchell. New York : Free Press, 2004

2 Osler, W. Aequanimitas: with other addresses to medical students, nurses and practitioners of medicine. Philadelphia : Blakiston, 1905

3 Osler's Bedside Library

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