by Ann Jurecic

book clubA group of students and faculty at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School meet, once or twice each month, in a study room of the Medical Education Building. They do not meet to discuss emergency medicine, community health, or genetics research. No, these are the members of the Finer Things Club—a book group made up of an eclectic set of readers, including a cardiothoracic surgeon, a pathology researcher, the school’s course director for biological chemistry, as well as a future medical student with degrees in neuroscience and philosophy, a first-year student with a doctorate in philosophy, and two 2007 Rutgers English alumni, Daniel Marchalik and Alex Kasavin.

The Finer Things Club is the brainchild of Marchalik, a first-year medical student with a longstanding interest in the medical humanities, which links humanistic study with medical education and practice. When the academic year began in September 2007, Marchalik stirred up interest among a handful of faculty and students to begin a book group that would counteract the regimented approach to learning in medical school, where few students or faculty feel they have time to read literature. Seven people showed up for the first meeting to discuss Samuel Shem’s House of God, a comic novel about interns at a famous teaching hospital. The book choice was a bit of a flop, but it helped the group to realize that they wanted to focus on topics other than medicine. Marchalik explained, “we wanted to do something so far from our circumstances and so literary that the only connection we could establish to the medical school would be the meeting’s location.” Thus, when they decided to tackle Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, the intellectual challenge of that novel became the catalyst for the club’s success. By the fourth meeting, the club had grown in size and were making ever bolder choices, selecting for discussion Ciridwen Dovey’s Blood Kin.

Among the regular participants is William Zehring, a biochemistry professor and a self-declared amateur reader who finds these gatherings to be a refreshing break from his routine. “There’s not enough art in life,” Zehring remarks. “The book club fulfills that need.” He pauses as he searches for words to sum up the experience and then concludes simply, “It’s …delicious.”

Rutgers English alumnus Alex Kasavin brings an outsider’s perspective to the conversation. Kasavin, who has no formal connection to the medical school, began attending because he missed literary discussions. From the start, he was surprised by how reading became a fundamentally social as well as cultural experience for members of the group. “There’s another world of reading out there, another culture of reading,” he observed. “Books provide an excuse to get together with other people, and getting together is also an excuse to engage with the books. Participants are making an effort to learn and to enrich themselves through literature.”

Now that Marchalik has launched a thriving book group, his work is not over. His application for the club to carry non-credit elective status has been approved by the medical school. In addition, he’s been asked to resurrect the Humanities and Medicine elective—a course in which visiting scholars give lectures about the links between medicine and other fields of study, such as history, film, literature, philosophy, and popular culture. As the school’s reigning humanist, Marchalik has even been given a budget for bringing art and beauty to the building’s dreary hallways.

Although Marchalik has stated that the goal of the book club is to prevent med school burnout, upon reflection, he admits that studying literature is more than a diversion. The more you read, he speculates, “the more lives you have access to and the richer life you can build for the people you meet. You learn that everyone has a story.” Remaining connected to literature and the arts, he suggests, reminds you of the intimate, interior lives of others. “In medical school,” he concludes, “we’re taught every day to think of patients in terms of symptoms. The book club invites us to think of patients more fully and more humanistically in terms of stories.”