Review of “A History of the Present Illness” by Louise Aronson

History of the Present Ilness

I just finished reading “A History of the Present Illness,” a compilation of sixteen fictional medical stories by Louise Aronson, for the second time since it was published in Spring 2013.  Shortly after the first time I read the book, this powerful video from the Cleveland Clinic went viral, and I thought “This video is the perfect visualization of Dr. Aronson’s stories.”


Her writing shows the thoughts and motivations of each character, even those “just passing through.” For example, this passage from “Snapshots From an Institution”:

With the tidy chrome machine hidden beneath his lap blanket, he wheeled himself down to the Total Care Unit kitchen, where he sold it at one third its retail value to a woman who smelled of garlic and dirty dishwasher and barely spoke English but knew her kids needed computers if they were going to avoid ending up like the young man from whom she bought the computer. (page 8)

My first read of this book was to just “inhale” the plots and swallow them whole. During the second read-through, I spent time savoring the perfectly-chosen language Aronson uses to describe the difficult decisions of health care professionals and the complex life circumstances of patients.

What I appreciated most was her variety of storytelling formats. In “Becoming a Doctor,” Aronson uses the titles of classic works of feminist literature  (The Second Sex, The Yellow Wallpaper) as subtitles for short snapshots of the medical training of a young female doctor. In “Twenty-Five Things I Know About My Husband’s Mother” Aronson uses a simple numbered list to expertly craft a story of the life and death of a woman the narrator has never even met. Each story offers the reader a chance to reflect on their own interactions with the health care system and reconsider the lives in which patients and doctors are situated. There is a lot more room for understanding on both sides.

Note: A few months after I first read this book, Dr. Aronson, a geriatrician at UCSF and an award-winning writer, was awarded a prestigious Gold Foundation Professorship. I am excited for the opportunity to work more closely with such a talented and thoughtful writer!

Brandy KingThis post was written by Brandy King, Head of Information Services at The Arnold P. Gold Foundation Research Institute

Brandy King, MLIS

Head of Information Services

Provides research services for staff, maintains resources on humanism and healthcare and works closely with Research Institute grantees.

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