The Mysteries and Truths of Illness: A Reading List

Photo: NVinacco

In her essay “This Imaginary Half-Nothing: Time” (#10 on this list), poet Anne Boyer quotes another poet, John Donne: “We study health, and we deliberate upon our meats, and drink, and air, and exercises, and we hew, and we polish every stone that goes to that building; and so our health is a long and a regular work.” What happens when that long work is disrupted, when an irregularity appears? What if the irregularity is chronic, terminal, fatal? Here, I’ve collected 10 stories about authors reckoning with illnesses—some without cause or cure.

1. “A Black Cat in a Dark Room: A Week in the Mysterious Sleeping Villages of Kazakhstan” (Sarah A. Topol, BuzzFeed, July 2015)

“Radiation. Government conspiracy. Mass hysteria. There are plenty of theories as to why the residents of a tiny Kazakh mining region keep falling asleep for days at a time, but no answers. BuzzFeed News spends a week there and tries to stay awake.”

2. “I Have Cancer…And It Sucks” (Deanna Pai, Cosmopolitan, March 2015)

“I like to hate-read wrenching cancer-scare stories, about how someone found a lump—but it wasn’t actually cancer, and the entire experience changed her forever! Now she eats kale salads and appreciates hummingbirds.”

Deanna Pai, 25-year-old beauty editor at Cosmo, gives a frank, first-person account what it’s like to undergo chemotherapy for a rare liver cancer.

3. “Why I Had To Buy My Wife’s Inhaler on the Dark Web” (Ross Whitaker, Motherboard, July 2015)

Jackie’s severe asthma calls for a $300 inhaler. Her husband, Ross, turns to Bitcoin and the black market to afford it.

4. “In Matters of the Heart, We’re in This Together” (Aubrey Hirsch, The New York Times, October 2014)

Before she was struck by a mysterious disease, Aubrey Hirsch thought a doting partner was the epitome of love. But the reality of her illness outpaced her affection for her boyfriend.

5. “Never Stops, Never Stops. Headache. Help.” (Kristen French, New York magazine, September 2013)

It sounds like science fiction: A select number of people living in close proximity to wind-powered turbines are suffering disturbing, chronic symptoms. (If you like this story, I recommend “The Devil’s Bait” by Leslie Jamison. There are thematic similarities.)

6. “Hollywood Has it Wrong: I’m a teenager with an illness and it’s not glamorous at all” (Lillie Lainoff, Washington Post, September 2014)

With movies like The Fault in Our Stars and Me & Earl & the Dying Girl and the short-lived television show Red Band Society, dying has never been so popular. These are harmful fictions, explains Lillie Lainoff, who was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) when she was just 14. Her experiences in hospitals stand in direct contradiction to the romanticization of illness in YA books, film and television.

7. “One Man’s Desperate Quest to Cure His Son’s Epilepsy—With Weed” (Fred Vogelstein, Wired, July 2015)

Hundreds of thousands of dollars. Thousands of miles. Dozens of doctors. One highly illegal, cannabis-infused medication.

8. “Remember Me as Someone Who Always Gave More” (Mandi Harris, Femsplain, February 2015)

“If I keep my head down and don’t ask for too much from life, fate might forget about me and not send anything else bad my way. There are other times when I want fate to notice me. I want to live a big life with my big voice and big personality. There is no one way to be sick. There is not even one way to be sick during the course of a day.”

9. “Three Months Without Breathing” (Kristen Hanley Cardozo, Archipelago, March 2015)

When i was in middle school, I was paranoid about asphyxiating due to an unknown food allergy, that I’d tried to swallow and my throat would be closed. This essay brought back those memories, but my fears are nothing compared to Kristen Hanley Cardozo’s reality. For three months, her vocal cords shut down—she couldn’t breathe or speak—and she suffered from terrible bodily weakness.

10. “This Imaginary Half-Nothing: Time” (Anne Boyer, Full Stop, July 2015)

Anne Boyer has written one of my favorite essays of the year, about the literary and capitalistic ramifications of “sick time.”

11. “Oliver Sacks: My Periodic Table.” (Oliver Sacks, The New York Times, July 2015)

“I have tended since early boyhood to deal with loss — losing people dear to me — by turning to the nonhuman. When I was sent away to a boarding school as a child of 6, at the outset of the Second World War, numbers became my friends; when I returned to London at 10, the elements and the periodic table became my companions. Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.

And now, at this juncture, when death is no longer an abstract concept, but a presence — an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence — I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity.”