Sick Lit: 10 Essential Illness Memoirs

Why do we read memoirs of illness? Is it to be confronted with the weakness and fragility of the human body and the unjustness and cruelty of fate? To experience vicariously the vagaries of an unexpected life? To be reminded of our own relative health? No matter the reason, these narratives have become increasingly ubiquitous in recent years, so much so that the genre has a name. Chicago writer Paula Kamen — who added her story to the shelf with her 2006 book All in My Head — dubbed it “sick lit,” and, in her manifesto, defined it as “women fighting shame and isolation through telling their stories about ‘invisible’ illness.”

But if the genre was originally the province of women, men have also gotten into the game. Last month, poet Paul Guest published One More Theory About Happiness, a memoir of the aftermath of an accident that left him paralyzed at age 12. And if these books were once only morbid, they now frequently incorporate humor as a mechanism for making sense of and coping with illness. In the spirit of the changing face of sick lit, we’ve cast a wide net — considering books about disabilities, addiction, and ailments both visible and not — to compile this list of ten  exemplars — some old, some new, some well-known, others less so, some funny, some not, some by men, some by women — of the genre.

Have we missed your favorite? Tell us in the comments section.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
After French magazine editor Bauby suffered a massive stroke, he was left completely paralyzed except for his left eye. He used that remaining functional orb to blink out — letter by letter — this haunting memoir. Made into a beautiful and affecting film in 2007, this may be the ultimate wow-I-don’t-have-it-so-bad-after-all read.