What to Read Before and After Surgery

Surgery can bring out a lot of emotions in both the patient and their loved ones. Between anxiety and fear before surgery, pain and exhaustion following surgery, and frustration and boredom during the recovery process, it’s an incredibly stressful experience. While your body heals, some comfort reading might be just what you need to soothe your mind and spirit. These suggestions of what to read before and after surgery may come in handy if you’re preparing to go under the knife, or if you’re trying to find the perfect gift for a loved one.

I recently had surgery to repair a broken ankle, and it’s been a long and grueling process. When told I wouldn’t be able to put any weight on my leg for three months after surgery, I tried to find a bright side. Months on the couch means plenty of time for reading, right? Wrong. I’ve actually fallen behind in my reading since I broke my ankle, even though I’ve had nothing but free time. Between the pain, anxiety about surgery, and decreased attention span from the pain medication, it’s been hard to keep up my usual reading pace. But I’ve figured out what can keep my attention and provide me some comfort. Now, I’m here to share some ideas for any other readers looking at a long recovery process.

What to Read Before Surgery

I had a week and a half between the time I broke my ankle and the surgery to repair it. During that time, I was on pain medication that made it really hard for me to focus on reading. I was also stressed about the surgery and what my life would look like afterwards. So the best books for this period were fast paced, easy to absorb, and great at world building. Avoid anything focused on the health care industry or the ways things can go wrong.

Science Fiction and Fantasy

Books that can take your mind to a world far from your pain and stress are a must. Look for science fiction and fantasy books with great world building and fast-paced action. Just avoid SFF that’s too complex or hard to follow if that’s not usually your thing, as it might lead to some frustration. Binti: The Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor is a great pick that takes you to another planet with very different problems from your own. Binti is a young woman with a talent for math and for “harmonizing,” or negotiating peace. She’s selected to attend a prestigious university on another planet, but before her ship arrives, it’s invaded by an alien species that kills everyone on board—except her.

Another great option is reading short story collections, especially if you’re having trouble focusing. Shorter story arcs might be easier to complete, and if one isn’t capturing your attention, you can simply skip to the next one. A People’s Future of the United States, edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams, is a great new collection with stories from some of the biggest names in SFF, including N.K. Jemisin, Daniel José Older, Charlie Jane Anders, Justina Ireland, and more. These stories look to a future in the U.S. that is more diverse and inclusive, and they feature some truly badass protagonists pushing back against oppression.

Romance

When everything in your life (and your body) is stressful and scary, sometimes you need a guaranteed happy ending. That’s why romance novels are a great pick while getting ready for surgery. There may be some bumps in the road, but you know everything will turn out alright. Meet cutes, romantic tropes, and butterflies in the stomach also help create a welcome distraction. Anything by Jasmine Guillory gives me all the romcom vibes I need, like her upcoming book The Wedding Party (July 16, Berkley Books). When two nemeses come together for their mutual best friend’s wedding, they end up having a series of secret sexy rendezvouses. But is their connection more than physical?

Retellings of classic novels are another great choice. If you’ve read the book that inspired a retelling, you probably have a pretty good idea of where it’s headed. For example, Ayesha At Last by Uzma Jalaluddin is a modern Muslim retelling of Pride and Prejudice. Ayesha and Khalid have an undeniable connection. But when Khalid’s mother arranges an engagement to Ayesha’s cousin Hafsa, all three must decide between what they believe and what their hearts tell them.

Comics and Graphic Novels

When you’re low on energy and struggling to focus, comics and graphic novels may provide the change of pace you need. They’re visually engaging and if you’re on pain medication, they may be easier to focus your eyes on than a page full of words. Try fast-paced superhero comics, or if that’s not your speed, a heartwarming story like Bingo Love by Tee Franklin, Jenn St. Onge, Joy San, and Cardinal Rae. Hazel and Mari fell in love as teenagers but were pulled apart by their families and society. Fifty years later, they meet again at the bingo hall where they first kissed and find that life has given their love a second chance.

 

What to Read After Surgery

Some of the pre-op books suggested above are also great immediately after surgery. You’ll still be experiencing some pain and frustration, and your attention span may still be short. So feel free to keep up your SFF, Romance, and Comics reading after you’ve returned home. Here are some additional ideas as you continue to heal.

Comforting Classics

Right after surgery, it’s especially crucial to get your mind off of the pain and find a happy place. Reread books that bring you joy and happy memories. It’s also nice to already know where the plot is headed in case you have trouble focusing. If you’re struggling to read printed or ebooks, try mixing up the format with audiobooks. When I was at the peak of pain after returning home, I couldn’t focus my eyes on a book, so I found a new audio version of an old favorite: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, narrated by Tituss Burgess. The voice of an actor I love bringing new life to familiar characters was just what I needed to get my mind off the pain.

Funny Memoirs and Essay Collections

It sounds cheesy, but laughter really is the best medicine. Nothing helped me forget the pain and discomfort I was in like a good belly laugh. Samantha Irby is one of my favorite funny authors, and her memoirs Meaty and We Are Never Meeting in Real Life are absolutely delightful. She’s also able to make light of her own chronic pain and physical ailments in a way that may bring some comfort.

Celebrity memoirs are another great choice during recovery, particularly memoirs from funny stars. If the author narrates the audiobook, even better. The familiar voice of a celebrity you admire telling their story in their own words may be just what the doctor ordered. The Greatest Love Story Ever Told by Hollywood couple Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman is a hilarious memoir of their relationship. It’s heartwarming and laugh-out-loud funny, giving you all the good feels to get well soon.

 

What to Read While You Recover

Once you’re past the worst part of post-surgery pain, you may be ready to read something that requires a bit more focus. As cabin fever starts to set in, you’ll want something more challenging. Or maybe something that will help you feel like you’re anywhere else besides the couch.

Mystery/Thriller

The twists and turns of a mystery/thriller take a little more energy to keep up with, but they’ll also provide a great escape from the arduous recovery process. If you’re tired of the tedium of bed rest, try something full of intrigue and adventure. American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson is a fantastic new historical spy novel set during the Cold War. Marie is an intelligence officer with the FBI, making her way in a sexist and racist old boys’ club. When she’s sent undercover to Burkina Faso to help take down a revolutionary president, everything she knows about being a spy changes.

Fiction in Far Away Places

If you can’t go far from home during your recovery, read books set far from home. Reading about distant places well help you pretend you’re anywhere but your bed. Check out books that will transport you. To travel across the world and through time, try historical fiction set in a different country. Set in 1930s Malaysia, The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo is just what you need to mix things up. As rumors spread about men turning into tigers, a dancehall girl and an orphan boy cross paths and find their fates are intertwined.

Health Care Nonfiction

Before surgery, stay far away from anything related to hospitals or medical care. But once you’re past the worst of your pain and the risk of complications, you may be interested in reading more about what you experienced. Unfortunately, I read Anesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness by Kate Cole-Adams a while before surgery, and therefore spent some days terrified of what could go wrong when the anesthesiologist put me under. However, it’s a fascinating study of what we do and don’t know about consciousness and anesthesia. After your surgery has (hopefully) gone as planned, this book might help you learn more about what happened while you were asleep.

Memoirs about chronic pain, health challenges, and death may provide surprising clarity as you recover. Learning about other health journeys can help you learn tactics for recovery and appreciation for the care you’ve received. I gained a lot of perspective from Julie Yip-Williams’ memoir The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After. Yip-Williams was born blind in Vietnam. She spent much of her life pushing back against the stereotypes placed on her because of her disability. After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, she reflected on how health, access to care, and grief affected her life.


If you’re preparing for surgery, good luck! If you’re recovering from surgery, I hope you have the time and energy to enjoy a good book. And if you’re shopping for a loved one with a recovery ahead of them, I hope this list gave you some great ideas for reading material. You might enjoy these other articles from Book Riot:

Tips and Tricks for Reading When You’re Sick
Books I’m Reading to Better Understand Illness and Death
50 Books to Read If You Love Medicine

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Susie Dumond: Susie learned to love books as a nerdy kid in Little Rock, Arkansas. She’s now a full-grown nerd working in advocacy and policy in Washington, DC. When she’s not reading, she can be found playing with her dog, Waffles.