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Reviewed by:
  • Medicine and Humanistic Understanding: The Significance of Literature in Medical Practice
  • Johanna Shapiro (bio)
Jerry Vannatta, Ronald Schleifer, and Sheila Crow. Medicine and Humanistic Understanding: The Significance of Literature in Medical Practice. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. DVD-ROM, $39.95.

Literature and medicine have been inextricably intertwined since the time of the Greeks. Often, as in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's classic novel, Frankenstein,literature has been concerned with the idea that science and technology threaten medicine's humanistic heart. In the case of the DVD Medicine and Humanistic Understanding: The Significance of Literature in Medical Practice,we find technology in the service of literature and medical humanism, and it is a remarkably successful experiment, which enhances, enlivens, and inspirits the once-predictable academic text.

For the reader to fully appreciate the creativity and organization involved in the production of this DVD, I must expend a few words describing the resources it contains. The DVD is a fascinating combination of text (which can be both listened to and read); video clips of roundtable discussions with leading figures in the field of medicine and literature (Rafael Campo, Rita Charon, Anne Hudson Jones, Anne Hunsaker Hawkins, Kathryn Montgomery Hunter, Oliver Sacks, Richard [End Page 328] Selzer, John Stone, Abraham Verghese, and others—just the sort of people you would want to hear hold forth on literature-inspired topics); clinical role-plays and simulations; an extensive bibliography; and an extremely useful glossary. The material also includes chapter-by-chapter examinations for Continuing Medical Education credit. From a technical standpoint, the DVD is easy to use, even for a technically challenged person like me, and the chapter and section tables of contents make it simple to locate specific segments of interest. One can proceed in a linear fashion through the material, but it is also possible, indeed almost irresistible, to roam at will. The DVD encourages such adventurousness with links that facilitate instant exploration of technical terms in the text, refresh the viewer's memory about relevant points made in previous chapters, bring in pertinent expert voices through video clips, and highlight clinical relevance through role-plays and case histories.

As someone who enjoys curling up with a good book more than untangling the complexities of my computer, I found myself enchanted and enthralled by my experience with this DVD. The multimedia presentation of information is itself a sensory delight. The composition of the DVD is aesthetically pleasing, with agreeable illustrations and artwork, rich color schemes, and a satisfying variety of modalities. The text is easy on the eyes. The pop-up video clips are surprisingly unlike talking heads, perhaps because they are almost all quite brief, and I enjoyed putting faces and voices to authors whose work I had previously only read.

Yet no matter how technologically impressive and elegant the presentation, in the end, as with anything of value, it all comes down to substance. After the initial childlike enthusiasm for a new toy fades, we ask, Is the content worthwhile? Does it contribute anything to the field? I am pleased to say that, in this case, the material presented is substantive and well worth the viewer's time. Organized into six ample chapters ("The Patient-Physician Relationship," "The Patient's Story," "Doctors Listening to Patients," "Narrative and Medicine," "Narrative and the Everyday Ethical Practices of Medicine," and a concluding chapter that pulls together and applies the previous material in a brilliant analysis of Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych), each of which is divided into four to six subsections, the DVD provides a comprehensive treatment of key aspects of the relationship between narrative and medicine.

In my opinion, the level of analysis and interpretation is far from superficial. Even educators who have been working in the field for several years will learn much from this work. For example, the [End Page 329] discussion of the forms of narrative and their relationships to medicine is one of the clearest and most comprehensive I have run across. This presentation made me think about tragedy, comedy, melodrama, and irony and their inevitable appearance in the small daily dramas of medical practice and helped me understand why medicine so often...


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pp. 328-331
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