20 Fascinating Biographies and Memoirs About Health

A biography of the heart, a memoir about kicking a nicotine habit and more books about personal health odysseys.

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'Ah-Choo!' by Jennifer Ackerman

Just in time for runny nose season, science writer Ackerman delves into the lifespan of the common cold. "One minute you’re yourself, perhaps with a faint scratch in the back of the throat, nothing alarming," she writes. "The next you’re a vessel of full-blown congestive fury and malaise." (amazon.com)

'Born on a Blue Day' by Daniel Tammet

Tammet, an autistic savant, shares his incredible mental powers—he sees numbers as shapes, colors and textures; he can speak new languages fluently, from scratch—in this inspiring memoir. (amazon.com)

'Bonk' by Mary Roach

Roach explores the science of sex—from the female orgasm to erectile dysfunction among polygamists—in this humorous, astutely researched investigation. (amazon.com)

'The Dancing Plague' by John Walker

In 1518, "Frau Troffea stepped outside and began to dance. So far as we can tell no music was playing and she showed no signs of joy as her skirts flew up around her rapidly moving legs," writes Walker in this gripping account of the Dancing Plague, a bizarre epidemic of mass hysteria in which as many as 100 people danced to their deaths in medieval Europe. (amazon.com)

'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Bauby was the editor-in-cheif of French Elle when he suffered a stroke in 1995 that left him with locked-in syndrome. Able to communicate only by blinking his left eye, he wrote this extraordinary, heartbreaking book about his experience, dictating words by blinking out letters of the alphabet. (amazon.com)

'Down Came the Rain' by Brooke Shields

The actress opens up about her battle with postpartum depression in this smart, startlingly honest memoir. (amazon.com)

'Drinking: A Love Story' by Caroline Knapp

"I drank when I was happy and I drank when I was anxious and I drank when I was bored and I drank when I was depressed, which was often," writes Knapp in this absorbing, incredibly candid memoir of alcoholism. (amazon.com)

'Eating Pomegranates' by Sarah Gabriel

At 42, British journalist Gabriel opted to have her healthy ovaries removed after learning that she had the BRCA1 gene. But seven months later, despite the preventive measure, doctors found malignant tumors in her breast tissue. In this fiercely emotional memoir (amazon.com), Gabriel, a mother to two young daughters, blends the story of her personal medical odyssey with the history of the disease. —Ellen Emry Heltzel

'The Eden Express' by Mark Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut's brother Mark details his descent into nervous breakdowns in the 60s and early 70s in this, at times, harrowing, often funny memoir of madness. (amazon.com)

'The Emperor of All Maladies' by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Mukherjee's undeniably human, superbly written biography of cancer details the history of the disease that humans have lived with for the past five thousand years. (amazon.com)

'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' by Rebecca Skloot

The astonishing, groundbreaking story of a poor Southern tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge and used as important tools of medicine. (amazon.com)

'History of a Suicide' by Jill Bialosky

"Before Kim ended her life, I thought, like most people, that someone who would take his or her own life was somehow different from the rest of us," writes Bialosky. "I was wrong." In this compassionate memoir, Bialosky combines her sister Kim's diaries with family memoir and the works of doctors and pyschologists to explore the depths of the human spirit. (amazon.com)

'I Have Something to Tell You' by Regan Hofmann

"I am a walking biohazard—a heated container of deadly viral particles. I don't look sick. But I could kill you. I am part of a tribe of people bound by bad biology: misunderstand, deeply feared because of the human immunodeficiency virus I carry and bearing a cripping stigma that has long kept me silent," writes Hofmann in this passionate account about disease and surivial. (amazon.com)

'A Life in Smoke' by Julia Hansen

"I accepted the certainty of my untimely death with gallows humor and a calculator," writes Hansen in this funny, absorbing account of her exteme attempts to quit smoking. "I'd read somewhere that each cigarette you smoke knocks seven minutes off your time on the planet. To amuse myself, I did the math: 153,000 cigarettes=two years of my life, up in smoke." (amazon.com)

'My Beautiful Genome' by Lone Frank

"Over the next decade, genetics will become as familiar to us as the personal computer," declares science writer Frank in My Beautiful Genome (amazon.com) a smart, fascinating, deliciously irreverent investigation into the author's own DNA and the new science of consumer-led genomics. When her genome is mapped, will Frank feel better prepared to face potential diseases, or is ignorance truly bliss?

'Second Opinions' by Jerome Groopman, MD

A study in navigating the uncertainty of illness, Groopman details eight gripping clinical dramas. (amazon.com)

'The Sublime Engine' by Stephen Amidon and Thomas Amidon, MD

In this biography of the body's magical, miraculous organ, the brothers Amidon explore the ways in which people have "thought about the heart ever since it took root in the Western imagination." Encompassing both science and the arts, Engine serves to understand the heart as a symbol of humanity. (amazon.com)

'The Journal of Best Practices' by David Finch

Self-centered, short-tempered and oblivious to all the useful things he might be doing around the house if he weren't such an inconsiderate boob—that could describe any number of about-to-be-ex-husbands. But amp up the bad behavior and add a few warning bells and whistles (phobias, fixations, a tendency to quack), and you may have a guy with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism. Luckily, Finch's wife, who works with children on the spectrum, caught on to the fact that her husband's brain was simply wired differently—and together they set out to rescue their teetering marriage. In this funny, endearing, lesson-packed memoir, Finch shows what a couple can accomplish with acceptance, forbearance, determination and love. —Amanda Lovell (amazon.com)

'What to Look for in Winter' by Candia McWilliams

Beloved British writer McWilliams details her sudden blindness in this intimate memoir about losing her sense of sight. (amazon.com)

'You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know' by Heather Sellers

In her debut memoir, Sellers describes a harrowing childhood: Her mom was an impoverished paranoid schizophrenic, her dad a cross-dresser. Adding to those challenges was Sellers’s inability to recognize faces, even those of the people she knew. Decades later, buoyed by the love of a good man, she decides to make peace with her parents. Their reunion sheds light on the depth of a daughter’s love; it also leads Sellers to a ­diagnosis of her condition—prosopagnosia, or face ­blindness—while turning up different, darker insights about her marriage. But even in the midst of divorce, Sellers is resilient: “If I could love these people,” she writes of her family, “who could I not love?” (amazon.com)


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First Published January 27, 2012

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