On a brisk winter evening in Brunswick, Maine, about 20 animated
adults gather in a corner room of MidCoast Hospital. The roar of a
nearby vacuum cleaner signals what should be the end of the day for
many of them. But members of this group ignore the signal, settling
down instead at a table and cracking open the books they've brought.
Their energy may stem from what lies in front of these healthcare
professionals: a nonfiction work by Susan Sontag. For the next few
hours, white coats and patient charts will be put aside as this
unusual book club ponders how to weave literary lessons into the
text of their work lives.
These monthly meetings, they say, give them a rare chance to
pause from a busy schedule and scientific conversations - an
opportunity to think more deeply about their profession. "We use
literature to help strip away the assumptions we bring to work, and
improve our understanding of our patients and each other," says
Peter McGuire, a family physician who has attended the voluntary
seminars at MidCoast Hospital for the past three years.
Indeed, many professionals, from lawyers and doctors to teachers
and probation officers, are finding that the lens of literature can
offer deep insights into their work.
The Maine program, called Literature and Medicine and sponsored
by the state humanities council, started in 1997 and has expanded to
24 of the state's 35 hospitals. In the past 10 years, state
humanities councils in more than a dozen other states have started
similar programs for professional groups. Meanwhile, a pioneer in
the concept, Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., has served more
than 7,000 professionals since 1981.
Help from 'Billy Budd'
Groups might use "Antigone" to launch a debate on moral dilemmas,
"Billy Budd" as a case study in justice and abuse of power, or "The
Bluest Eye" for a look at a fresh cultural perspective.
For former Maine Chief Justice Daniel Van Wathen, it was an essay
by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne that shed light on decades of bland
legal dockets. He was participating in a course for lawyers and
judges when he read a passage on how nothing is so universal among
humans as diversity.
"I realized how easy it can be, after seeing thousands of cases,
to think 'oh, this is one of those,' " he says. "But you really have
to consider the complexity and diversity of every human affair - and
when you forget that, you start doing injustice."
Justice Van Wathen also used to teach law courses and would point
to Oliver Wendell Holmes's statement that "law is more experience
than logic." He says he taught the importance of "the vicarious
experience of delving into literature to acquire a proper legal
Physician Geoffrey Gratwick says the Literature and Medicine
program in Maine helped him "become more aware of the need to slow
down, and listen to what my patients' needs are." He cut back the
number of patients he sees so that he can spend more time with them.
"It's fun to be a doctor again, and it puts pleasure back in the
practice for me," he says.
The concept of book discussions is nothing new - indeed, it is as
old as books themselves. And the notion that a cross-pollination
among the arts and sciences is ideal harks at least as far back as
the Renaissance. But more recently, it was only in the 1980s that
the idea that literature and other humanities add real value to
professions such as law and medicine gained solid footing.
Daniel Terris, coordinator for the Brandeis Seminars in
Humanities and the Professions, says his program was partly a
response to the reaction against US professionals in the 1980s, many
of whom were caught up in money and status. "Many professionals were
recognizing the need to not only have the requisite skills to do
your work, but also to pay attention to your own values and the
values of the institution you were a part of," he says. …