What should she read?
July 14, 2006 1:14 PM   Subscribe

Help me find a book for someone who doesn't like to read.

I'm looking for book (novel really) recommendations for a friend of mine who doesn't really like to read. She has a fairly short attention span and gets bored with most books quickly. She's interested in medicine (she was pre-med and will being going to medical school in the near(ish) future) so books in that vein would probably go over well and hold her attention. She's very intelligent, so no need to shy away from 'hard' (whatever you want to take that to mean) suggestions.
posted by christy to Media & Arts (46 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I would recommend something along the lines of "Silence of the Lambs." It is an excellent novel, the fact she knows the storyline will show how a novel adds to the motion picture (an unfortunate way of expressing it, since the novel was first). It is fast paced and very involving.

I think that's a good route for showing someone the depth of what a book provides.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:18 PM on July 14, 2006

I would suggest David Sedaris or Augusten Burroughs. My personal favorites are Me Talk Pretty one Day and Running with Scissors repsectively. They are both memoir novels and very entertaining. Sedaris uses short story type chapters so they will keep your friend from getting to bored. And Running with Scissors deals with mental illness(kinda medical), but both should keep her reading.
posted by meeshelle39 at 1:20 PM on July 14, 2006

Does it have to be a novel? I tend to do better with collections of short stories myself.

The Best American Short Stories of the year series has generally been good, though I haven't picked one up for a few years.

I used to like reading Ellen Gillchrist's short story collections in part because her stories tended to draw from the same pool of characters and settings, and backstories.
posted by Good Brain at 1:21 PM on July 14, 2006

My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist by Mark Leyner
posted by mattbucher at 1:21 PM on July 14, 2006

The Silence of the Lambs is indeed a really good read. For something a little more medical, you might have her try The Andromeda Strain. Crichton is pretty accessible, and he is/was an M.D. himself, though sometimes the science in his books is more like "science."
posted by Gator at 1:26 PM on July 14, 2006

How about something by Douglas Coupland? Life After God is good because it's a collection of short stories. The font is pretty large and the paragraphs are pretty short. And Coupland writes for GenX types, who have tend to have grown up on Sesame Street and thus have 30-second attention spans. His material is intelligent and the stories are interesting.

(Are you trying to interest your friend in reading or is she looking for a book to read? If she's the one with the interest, perhaps she could start by telling you what she doesn't like.)
posted by acoutu at 1:28 PM on July 14, 2006

It'd be helpful to get an idea of the kind of things she's read and gotten bored with in the past.
If she's never read a particular type of writing before maybe it's the one type she wouldn't get bored with as easily.
posted by juv3nal at 1:32 PM on July 14, 2006

Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
The Time Traveler's Wife

Maybe one of Jonathan Kellerman's psychological thrillers?
posted by SassHat at 1:33 PM on July 14, 2006

Response by poster: thanks for all the suggestions everyone!

to answer some of the questions:

- it's a combination of me wanting to interest her in reading and her wanting to get interested, probably more interest in my part though.

- i initially (before i knew she didn't really like reading) gave her corelli's mandolin, which proved a disaster, i've also tried even cowgirls get the blues, which i thought would be more whimsical and attention grabbing, and welcome to the monkey house, due to the short story nature. she liked cowgirls, but couldn't finish it because she got bored, and she read some of monkey house, but ultimately didn't really like it.
posted by christy at 1:38 PM on July 14, 2006

I recommend a short story collection too, simply because it's so much less intimidating to start when you're busy. Also, if she doesn't like one author, she can just read the next story. There's no big investment of time. I haven't read these, but a quick search finds Bedside Manners: An Anthology of Medical Wit and Wisdom and Diagnosis: Terminal an Anthology of Medical Terror. Sounds like the first is nonfiction.

If she likes medical thrillers (or you think she would - does she like suspenseful films?), there's any number of those - look for Michael Palmer, F. Paul Wilson, Patricia Cornwell, Jonathan Kellerman.
posted by joannemerriam at 1:47 PM on July 14, 2006

I'd suggest a good graphic novel. Think of it as a crossover book from comics (which a book-o-phobe would be unintimidated by) to a novel.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is one of my favorite stories ever. If not that, Embroideries is a little lighter.

more literary graphic novels here.

Young adult novels are designed to be easy but some are fantastic reads!

I also like the lean towards really engaging mysteries here too. How about a VI Warshawski or a Bernie Rodenbarr novel?
posted by serazin at 1:48 PM on July 14, 2006

Your best bet would be Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. A friend of mine in the same situation (hadn't been reading for a long time, very intelligent, exercise physiology student taking tons of anatomy classes) picked it up on a whim and it instantly became her favorite book. It's a series of vignettes depicting the multiple scientific uses of cadavers (some more bizarre than others).

One problem: It's not a novel.

However, it is written in a sophisticated vein (pun intended!) while maintaining its humor. If nothing else, it would be an execllent segue back into reading for her. It's as serious as death and as funny as human crash test dummies. That's gotta be worth something.
posted by themadjuggler at 1:48 PM on July 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

I too have a short attention span and I really enjoyed Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers. It's well-written, funny when it should be, and has a medical angle your friend may enjoy.
posted by chiababe at 1:53 PM on July 14, 2006

Damn you, themadjuggler! :)
posted by chiababe at 1:54 PM on July 14, 2006

Middlesex is about a man who was born as a girl, resulting from his grandparents' being siblings. The medical implications were pretty fascinating. In the mental illness department, I Know This Much Is True (plz to ignore the Oprah's Book Club tag) is largely about schizophrenia.

The Frank Clevenger series by Keith Ablow is great reading, too, and perhaps more medically-oriented.
posted by timetoevolve at 1:56 PM on July 14, 2006

maybe some poetry? try the collected works of george oppen on for size.
posted by juv3nal at 1:56 PM on July 14, 2006

There's a great Neil Gaiman novel called Neverwhere, which is a fun read. If she's a visual person, I found this book incredibly visual (probably because he usually writes graphic novels). Also on the plus side, it's fairly short.
posted by witchstone at 1:58 PM on July 14, 2006

Sedaris has a very particular style, so may be a love or hate author. I wouldn't recommend 'time traveler's wife'. I read a lot and it's taken me a few tries to get to the meat of the book.

- "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" might be of interest.
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (autism, quick read)
posted by ejaned8 at 1:58 PM on July 14, 2006

I suggest short stories, too. I love Sedaris. How about The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing?
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 2:02 PM on July 14, 2006

Greg Bear - Darwin'sRadio. Very intense medical / science thriller, it was one of those books I started in the afternoon and skipped meals because I couldn't put it down long enough to eat.
posted by COD at 2:03 PM on July 14, 2006

I second Middlesex. I'm reading it right now and I have a hard time putting it down.
posted by acoutu at 2:09 PM on July 14, 2006

Richard Brautigan's novels are very short and have a lot in common with Tom Robbins, if she liked Cowgirls but couldn't finish it. Trout Fishing In America for choice.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 2:17 PM on July 14, 2006

I also get bored with books quickly (especially fiction), but for some reason I really dislike short stories because they seem mostly to be "mood-setting" with little actually occurring. Consequently, I tend to like books with lots of characters doing lots of things involving complicated plot lines. In this vein, I would (also) recommend:
Middlesex, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Infinite Jest (though some people really hate it), Fortress of Solitude. These aren't medical, but they *are* popular with lots of different kinds of people.
posted by unknowncommand at 2:19 PM on July 14, 2006

Also "Heart, you bully, you punk".
posted by unknowncommand at 2:27 PM on July 14, 2006

I loved Middlesex, but wouldn't recommend it at all for her. All the back-and-forthing in time is going to just kill her -- it's going to be Corelli's Mandolin all over again.

Tom Robbins and his ilk, again, have too much going on. If she's not already in love with books, she's not going to marvel at the coy detail and disgressions-that-are-not-digressions of a quirky writer like that.

You're better off with something more straightforwardly written and mainstream, at least to start, though I would also second Neverwhere.
posted by desuetude at 2:39 PM on July 14, 2006

Its odd, but the people I know who go on and on about how wonderful and amazing (*shudder*) The Da Vinci Code is ... are people who I would describe as nonreaders. I know 5 or 6 people who almost never read books that became obsessed with Da Vinci ( Though A.O. Scott has described it as ... and I quote, Dan Brown's best-selling primer on how not to write an English sentence...).
posted by R. Mutt at 2:44 PM on July 14, 2006

Seconding Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers -- definitely a great read. Another medical-themed book (though still not a novel) she might like is Atul Gawande's collection of essays, Complications. I couldn't put it down.

Still in the nonfiction vein, but not medical: I think Bill Bryson is one of the funniest (and most engaging) writers on the planet. I have been known to fall to the floor weeping with laughter because of certain passages from In a Sunburned Country, A Walk in the Woods, The Lost Continent, and Neither Here Nor There. (His Short History of Nearly Everything is also superb, but may not be as immediately accessible as his humor/travel writing.)
posted by scody at 2:44 PM on July 14, 2006

My father's kind of like this, in that he's an intelligent person and deeply interested in ideas of the sort it takes books to properly explain - in other words, he has the sensibilities of an academic - and he even likes watching TV shows about books, but he's never been very oriented towards sitting down and reading them. I had some success with audiobooks as gifts before he retired and ditched the daily commute. Might be worth a shot.
posted by furiousthought at 3:39 PM on July 14, 2006

Fourthing (or something) Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. It was a great read.

My boss was in the same shoes as your friend, and hadn't read anything at all in years. I made it a point to talk about the kinds of things that interested him - including what kind of art he liked, movies he loved, etc., then I took 10 books from my library for him to peruse, picking all kinds of types, including fantasy, sci-fi, modern fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, classics, etc. - all from my favorite books.

He didn't particularly like most of the stuff I had selected the first time around. On the second go around, though, he found that he really enjoyed Sharpe's Rifles, which then became the basis for me picking other books.

Once he got started he got more adventurous and learned the kinds of things he liked and didn't, which made picking books much easier. Now he's an avid reader, although with totally different taste than me.

My point here being that it's hard to pick the right kind of book for someone without knowing a lot about them. I also found it good to try a lot of different things.

For what it's worth, here is my first round of 10:
Good Omens, Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett
The Prestige, Christopher Priest
The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman
The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson
Across the Nightingale Floor, Lian Hearn
Maus, Art Spiegelman
A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
Wicked, Gregory Maguire
Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
The Sorrow of War, Bao Ninh
posted by gemmy at 3:59 PM on July 14, 2006

My short-attention space, intelligent doctor friend is a an of Into Thin Air, the story of a failed Everest expedition. Not fiction (unless you think Krakauer is full of it), but very gripping. I guarantee success with this book. Seriously.
posted by jdroth at 4:12 PM on July 14, 2006

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
Things Fall Apart
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
The Education of Little Tree
posted by pegstar at 4:52 PM on July 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of fantastic suggestions here, but of them all I'd like to second timetoevolve's suggestion of Middlesex, and to the list I'd add Ian McEwan's recent Saturday, which is about a British neurosurgeon. Although these books might be seen as superficially "literary" (Middlesex is already being taught in literature seminars; Saturday is probably on the fall syllabi for a couple dozen courses), both Eugenides and McEwan are gripping writers and develop sophisticated plots quickly enough to engage even a passive reader.

On that score, I've heard good things about Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, which is scifi-ish and thriller-ish at the same time it's medical-ish and literary-ish.
posted by Mmmmmm at 5:29 PM on July 14, 2006

Furiousthought, I was going to reccommend audio books as well. My theatre professional, but non-novel reading husband got iinto them a couple of years ago and now loves them. He always has one going for when he's got a hands on project.
posted by jvilter at 5:39 PM on July 14, 2006

I've just recently read Silicon Follies (remaindered in trade paper at Borders), a novelization of a serial from Wired Magazine.

Pretty funny, reasonably short, nice characters, etc....
posted by baylink at 5:43 PM on July 14, 2006

A gripping, well-written novel for a future med. student? Being Dead, by Jim Crace, sounds like what you might want.
posted by .kobayashi. at 6:19 PM on July 14, 2006

Can't quite picture people with short attention spans qualifying for MDs. Video editing gigs, maybe.
posted by zadcat at 7:22 PM on July 14, 2006

I agree you'e probably best going with genre fiction for the moment. Detective stories, horror/thriller (try Robin Cook for medical ones), sci-fi or fantasy... maybe even, gulp, romance?

On a different tack, here are a few novels that are fun and light with a good verbal sense of humor, if she enjoys that:

Anything by Terry Pratchett, light, witty, playful with language, slightly fantasyish. He has good plots too. Good Omens is a great one; Night Watch is gripping and -- strangely -- very poignant on audio.

P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster stories are light, funny, easy to pick up and put down, very enjoyable to read. (Try Thank you , Jeeves, for one.) The plots are not much, but it's no-pressure reading. There's a BBC series of these on DVD, if that helps her get interested. Plus there are about 30 of the books.

The Harry Potter books are very good on audio, if she hasn't seen the movies. (Stephen Fry or Jim Dale reads well)

Here's a different tack you might try:
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Whether this will work depends a lot on her interests, but if she's interested in people and social dynamics, and open to hear slightly old language, this really is a gripping and great book.

Oliver Sacks, of course. Most of his books are composed of magazine-article-length pieces about bizarre psychological/neurological phenomena, very fast and interesting to read.

Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson. Self-effacing British journalist goes and meets up with extremists (KKK leader, British mullah calling for destruction of the west) and finds they are oddballs eager to be perceived a certain way.

The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway. Autobiography about girlhood and growing up in isolated part of Australia; the author grew up from sheep-farming to become president of a major American college.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:36 PM on July 14, 2006

Ditto Bill Bryson. Perhaps Stephen Jay Gould's books of essays?

It's hard to say. My wife is hellishly intelligent but (mostly) only reads crappy fantasy books, and my lord does she read a lot of them, fast. The keys here are: A) They have a definite plot; B) they're long enough to be worth starting; C) they have horses.

If your friend is of this type (or a latent mystery fan or sci-fi geek) then loads of quality books won't do it. Perhaps someone's suggestion of a good-crappy fantasy (or mystery or sci-fi) book, more like junk food, will help?
posted by argybarg at 8:50 PM on July 14, 2006

"Emergency" by Mark Brown. It's a collection of things that have really happened in emergency rooms, submitted by doctors. All the items are short, so the book lends itself to "I have 5 minutes, lets read another one."
posted by ilsa at 9:37 PM on July 14, 2006

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke has really drawn me in. So has Good Omens by Neil Gaimen/Terry Pratchett.
posted by stavrogin at 10:45 PM on July 14, 2006

I'll second the Dan Brown recommendation - many of my non-reader friends have enjoyed his stuff.

My brother is not a big reader but he really enjoyed "The Alienist" by Caleb Carr. It's a period piece about an early forensic psychologist.

I also think Oliver Sacks would be perfect to get the reading bug going for a medically-minded non-reader. "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat" and "An Anthropologist On Mars" in particular.
posted by Rock Steady at 3:27 AM on July 15, 2006

My son is just not much of a reader, although he will happily read a manual or how-to. Novels, not so much. I've successfully encouraged reading by subscribing him to magazines. The New Yorker, Harper's, Atlantic, or Rolling Stone are good choices, or a good special-interest magazine.
posted by theora55 at 7:08 AM on July 15, 2006

R Mutt and Rock Steady have it: The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown writes for non-readers. Short sentences, short chapters, ideas that seem challenging but are easily digested, changes of pace to pander to those with short attention spans bred from TV, the whole designed to make the reader feel smart, and annoyingly page-turny to boot... I hate the book with a passionate undying loathing but there's a reason it's the best-selling novel of all time.
posted by Hogshead at 8:33 AM on July 15, 2006

i read "extremely loud and incredibly close" by jonathon safran foer in one day, and my attention span is not usually capable of such feats. very easy reading with pictures and a flipbook!
posted by kooop at 10:02 AM on July 15, 2006

The Alienist is an awesome suggestion. Even better, lit-dorks like it too, so you two could actually both enjoy the same book.

(Warning: Killing Time, a later novel by Caleb Carr, is terrible. Avoid.)
posted by desuetude at 2:34 PM on July 15, 2006

Not for everyone, but A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius has engrossed more than one non-reader that I know.
posted by raider at 12:10 PM on July 16, 2006

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