By Grant Jacobs 01/02/2017

These should all be excellent reading.

You can think of this long-list as a list of excellent reads related to “medicine, health or illness” from many types of writing, fiction or non-fiction.* The 2017 long-list has five fiction titles and twelve non-fiction titles.

The shortlist will be the exceptional reads, and the winner the pick of the bunch given the criteria and the current thinking of the judges. (Judges are only human!) The shortlist will be announced on the 14th of March, and the winner on the 24th of April.

Below I’ve listed each long-listed book, and their rating on GoodReads. GoodReads reader ratings are out of five. In my experience, anything over somewhere in 3.8 – 4.0 on GoodReads is a very high rating. As you can see, there isn’t a lot in these books; they’re all well regarded by readers. You can click on the ratings to read reader’s reviews.

I’ve carried over the first paragraph of the descriptions for readers. Click on the link on the title to be taken to the full descriptions on the Wellcome Book Prize website. Happy hunting!


Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal trans. Jessica Moore. GoodReads: 3.88 (from 337 ratings)

From fatal crash to life-saving operation: a 24-hour whirlwind of death and life.

The Golden Age by Joan London. GoodReads: 3.89 (from 185 ratings)

Set in a convalescent hospital for children with polio, ‘The Golden Age’ is a radiant novel that tells a deeply moving story about illness and recovery, about learning to navigate the unfamiliar, about embracing music, poetry, death and, most importantly, life.

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss. GoodReads: 4.13 (from 133 ratings)

One day Adam receives a call and finds out that Miriam, his 15-year-old daughter, has collapsed at school, her heart having stopped. Over the next few weeks, Adam’s safe family life is thrown into turmoil as they try to find out what’s wrong with her.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. GoodReads: 3.92 (from 412 ratings)

A sumptuously imagined novel of passion, ideas and friendship.

[Science v religion is one theme]

Miss Jane by Brad Watson. GoodReads: 4.02 (from 368 ratings)

Inspired by the life of Watson’s own great-aunt, this is the story of Miss Jane Chisolm, a woman whose life was shaped and limited by a congenital anomaly that was little-understood in her lifetime. It is a beautiful story of quiet dignity in hard, unromantic times.


How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France. GoodReads: 4.49 (from 42 ratings)

An expansive yet richly detailed insider’s account of the early years of the AIDS epidemic – of the radical campaign for accessible treatment that changed the way that medical science is practised worldwide.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari. GoodReads: 4.38 (from 288 ratings)

Yuval Noah Harari, author of the bestselling ‘Sapiens: A brief history of humankind’, envisions a not-too-distant world in which we face a new set of challenges. In ‘Homo Deus’, he examines our future with his trademark blend of science, history, philosophy and every discipline in between.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. GoodReads: 4.34 (from 98,373 ratings)

‘When Breath Becomes Air’ is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body by Jo Marchant. GoodReads: 4.1 (from 903 ratings)

A ground-breaking look at the new science behind the mind’s surprising ability to heal the body, with advice and tips on how we can all use the latest research to improve our health and our lives.

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee. GoodReads: 4.35 (from 5015 ratings)

The story of one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in our history, from bestselling, prize-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee.

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford. GoodReads: 4.23 (from 140 ratings)

A dazzling tour of the latest genetic discoveries that are blurring the boundaries between science and history.

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong. GoodReads: 4.24 (from 224 ratings)

An exciting and genre-busting book on microbes, one of science’s hottest topics, by a debut writer with a huge following.

My pick? Sorry, I can’t as I haven’t read them. I confess part of the reason is the cost of newly-on-the-market books is generally too high for my budget! Life’s like that. (That said, I am part-way through Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived.)

The Wellcome Book Prize is organised by the Wellcome Collection. Judges are listed on their website.

The prize aims “to encourage public involvement and encourage debate about the issues that the shortlisted books raise and to bring new writers and readers to the subjects of medicine and health.”

Candidates are submitted by the publishers, not authors.

I hope that somewhere in the mix the judging includes the accuracy of the science. I have, for example, seen strong objections to (aspects of) of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book, The Gene.**

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* Even science fiction is allowed. I can’t recall any science fiction being in the list from past years.

** I recall some of the fuss over what he wrote about epigenetics, partly as that is a research interest of mine, and partly as what was claimed at the time to be an excerpt of his book covering epigenetics was presented as advance publicity. (I recall others suggesting it was in fact an essay built based on the book’s content rather than an excerpt.)

Searching ‘Siddhartha Mukherjee epigenetics’ will reveal coverage of this. You might try, for example, Tabitha Powledge’s piece in PLOS Blogs or Larry Moran (Professor,Department of Biochemistry, University of Toronto) offering comments about the corrections to the book for its fifth edition.

Having not read the book, I can’t judge it for myself. That said, as a wider thought (i.e. about any book) I would like pick up Larry’s comment,

He doesn’t mention that there are other views that are well supported by tons of scientific evidence.

It’s important that alternative or contested ideas presented be placed in context. Without this, they can be misleading.

Let’s use an unrelated example to illustrate the point. If someone supports some particular research claiming to raise concerns about GM crops and that research has (science-based) objections from the research community, if they want to do sound science communication they are obliged to give that context, not leave it out (as one recent contributor at Sciblogs did). If you leave it out, you mislead the public as to what current state of the work is. (In this case presenting the research as if it were ‘accepted’, rather than strongly contested.)

Similarly, an author is perfectly entitled to present the more ‘interesting’ ideas, but if they wish to do sound science communication they should present these in the context of all the views, including limitations of the current ideas, or limit themselves to what is very well established.

I’ve written a few somewhat relevant pieces in the early days of Code for life on presenting the state of play of the research, being a referee of the evidence not a giver of opinion, and so on.

Featured image

Obtained from the Wellcome Book Prize website.