When I was around eight or nine, there was a whole series of How And Why books on different science and history subjects. It was the How And Why Wonder Book Of The Human Body that intrigued me. There were pictures of the skeleton and the muscles and the circulation, and I just couldn’t get enough of it. From that age, I knew I wanted to be a doctor and study the human body.
English was the subject at school that I was least good at. Science seemed quite obvious and natural to me, but I think my struggle with English has been rewarding. There were two books that we studied at school, round about O Levels, that really made an impression. They were Lord Of The Flies by William Golding and A Kestrel For A Knave by Barry Hines.
These were books where I suddenly realised that books could be powerhouses of huge ideas, moral dilemmas. In the case of Lord Of The Flies the dilemma is about the nature of humanity and good and evil, and for A Kestrel For A Knave it was all about social injustice and how we can promote change.
I read The Divided Self by R D Laing as a young student, probably just at the beginning of university, and this was really what switched me on to psychiatry. He wrote this book before he was 30, and it was a radical rethinking of psychiatry and particularly schizophrenia, the most severe form of mental illness.
It was a very difficult, technical book, but it was revelatory. I since became a much more conventional psychiatrist, but I’ve never lost that sort of slightly radical edge that Laing had.
See more reading lists of the best science books:
- Five of the best science books for kids
- Seven really, really big books about space
- Linguistics: 7 language science books to help you finally understand what comes out of your mouth
My next choice is completely different. It’s a novel called The Heart Broke In by James Meek, and it’s a wonderful story; it’s a state-of-the-nation novel about Great Britain in the 1990s and 2000s. It’s a great reflection on the country generally, but particularly the relationship between ordinary people and science.
One of the characters in the book is researching a malaria vaccine, and it doesn’t quite go as well as she’d hoped. An element of the novel is about funding for research and charities and how they can shape the scientist’s approach and compromise their ideals. It makes the book quite unique.
I learnt so much editing Insight And Psychosis: Awareness Of Illness In Schizophrenia, obviously about the subject matter itself, but also how satisfying it is to bring together people from different disciplines who are all struggling with the same topic. That’s something I think psychiatry’s brilliant at. It was a great experience for me, and it has been a big part of my life as well.
My final choice is Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. He’s a philosopher, and incredibly knowledgeable about psychology and neuroscience. He shows how you can apply empirical knowledge in psychology to the great questions of the philosophy of mind.
He’s one of those writers that wears their scholarship lightly. It’s a brilliant talent to be able to tackle these huge subjects and make them accessible without dumbing them down.
Into the Abyss: A neuropsychiatrist’s notes on troubled minds is out now (£12.99, Oneworld).