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7 of the Best Books to Read in Hospital (and 2 to Avoid)

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Ann-Marie Cahill


Ann-Marie Cahill will read anything and everything. From novels to trading cards to the inside of CD covers (they’re still a thing, right?). A good day is when her kids bring notes home from school. A bad day is when she has to pry a book from her kids’ hands. And then realizes where they get it from. The only thing Ann-Marie loves more than reading is travelling. She has expensive hobbies.

Over the last two years, I have been the accompanying parent on enough hospital visits to warrant a ‘loyalty card’ of some sort. But do you know the loyalty card I want? The one that rewards how many books you read while waiting for doctors and surgeries and test results and whatnot. Because if there is one thing I have learnt from the last two years, it’s that there is a special skill to how you read when you are waiting at the hospital. And there definitely should be a list of the Best Books to Read in Hospital.

Best Books to Read in Hospital

First up, this is a list for when you are NOT the patient. When you are sick and a patient in the hospital, you can choose whatever damn book you want to read. You’re sick. You need help and comfort. You call me and I will personally drop off whatever book you want and five more just like it.

However, when you are not the patient, there is a lot of waiting around. A LOT of waiting around. And you have to be ready to drop everything and anything to answer questions, bring a drink, massage feet, hold buckets, whatever. It’s a lot harder to find something to help pass the time while still being supportive.

In all honesty, short stories work the best for me. And a quick chat around the triage room to other support members said the same thing. One woman had brought Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban but both she and her 12-year-old daughter felt the sporadic interruptions from the medical staff made it hard to find a reading rhythm. The dad at the end of our line of chairs was reading The Jungle Book to his younger child, finding the shorter tales in the second half of the book were easier in between x-rays and ultrasounds.

Consensus: We’re looking for books you want to read but are able to put down when the next doctor calls your name. Right? Right. So if you don’t have a bunch of books that now come to mind, check out the list we have below. And save the hard-to-put-down epic novels for when you have a solid few hours to sit down and read (like, recovery).

best books to read in hospitalPicnic in the Storm by Yukiko Motoya

A sweet collection of short stories that reads like an experiment in ‘people watching’, the ultimate pastime for the bored chaperones in the waiting room. Motoya has lifted the veil on 11 characters and given us a brief glimpse of their lives in a way that reminds us of our own humanity. My favourite is the boy watching the old men at the bus stop with their umbrellas. I know, it sounds very ‘every day’-ish but that’s the beauty. Turning an ‘every day’ glimpse into something magical. In the U.S., it has published as The Lonesome Bodybuilder; not really as romantic-sounding as Picnic in the Storm but it still holds the same loveliness.

best books to read in hospitalHome Remedies: Stories by Xuan Juliana Wang

The cover alone is worth showing off in the hospital waiting room; I lost count of the eyebrows raised by medical staff. Truth be told: there are no home remedies in this book, only home truths. A collection of 12 short stories, all focused on the young Chinese generation trying to find their identity in a modern world with traditional values. Split into three sections (Family, Love, and Time/Space), each is an easy story about finding Your Way in your own mixed-up way. What makes this such a great read for me is the individual voice presented for each story. They all feel connected in theme but they are separated enough in character that I can stop when the doctor calls.

best books to read in hospitalForward: 21st Century Flash Fiction edited by Megan Giddings

The nature of ‘flash fiction’ is that it is REALLY short, so you can squeeze even more writers together in the book!! Here, there are way too many to list although every single one of them deserves a mention. Each contribution is a delight for readers and hopeful writers alike. Bonus points for being a project dedicated to promoting AOC—every contributor is a writer of colour. I can’t wait to hear about this book being used in schools as an example of how to write flash fiction and understand it as an expression in our modern age. In the meantime, it is perfect for short bursts of reading/thinking before the next radiologist calls us in.

best books to read in hospitalWhat is Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

There is always a risk of finishing the book before you finish your hospital visit. No worries with this one—you will want to re-±read this book because you need to check how each of the stories is connected in small but fascinating ways. Just don’t go expecting a sense of completion when you do finish (thus feeding the need to re-read and attempt to unravel the stories just that little bit more). Each story has a ‘key’; sometimes a physical key, sometimes a figurative representation. Think of it more like a very open-world game. There are keys to guide you along the way but you really can never be sure where you end up.

best books to read in hospitalPaper Girls by Brian K Vaughan (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Matt Wilson (colors), and Jared K. Fletcher (letters)

You want to read this before Amazon releases the TV series. Mainly because Vaughan is a master at adding subtle messages within his stories and Chiang is a legend at capturing them. And while I am excited about seeing this brought to life on screen, I am still a fan of reading each issue and flipping back a page or two to make sure I caught everything (spoiler: I didn’t). Word of advice, though—don’t leave this one sitting around the pediatrics ward. Not child-friendly.

best books to read in hospitalPieces for the Left Hand by J. Robert Lennon

Another exploration into the VERY short nature of ‘flash fiction’, allowing a broad collection of glimpses within the American culture. It reads like an anthology of urban legends; never really sure which are real, which are fabled, and which are a blend of both. There is a psychological humour to it that may find you laughing out loud at the most inappropriate moments but it will easily give you something to read while waiting for the nurse to check on you.

best books to read in hospitalThe Bride Test by Helen Hoang

If you loved The Kiss Quotient, then you probably already know about the second book in the connected series. Not a sequel but the same…literary world? Is that how we describe it? Look, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, just order both books, okay? Both romances and both absolutely delightful, with their insights into real people who find themselves in bizarre situations. For The Bride Test, it’s a potential arranged marriage with one party thinking he is broken and unable to feel love, and another party learning there are many different ways to love. The author is amazing in her portrayal of multi-layered characters and her sensitivity to the inclusion of people with autism. Definitely the right book for concentrating your volatile nerves and emotions towards a good story. Although it is a novel rather than short story compilation, it is lighthearted enough to put down while enjoyable enough to want to pick up again.

For the Love of All Things Holy, Do NOT Read These Books at the Hospital

best books to read in hospitalFriendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #6 by Tom Taylor (writer) and Juan Cabal (artist)

Tom Taylor cannot be trusted with my emotions. For someone who is genuinely one of the nicest guys in the industry, he takes far too much pleasure out of pulling my heart-strings. #6 introduces Spider-Bite and it is a real delight to read. But if you’re going to be stupid enough to take it with you for reading material at the hospital, then bring your own damn tissues. If you’re still looking for Taylor-books, check out The Deep Here Be Dragons Vol. 1 instead. Far easier on the emotions.

best books to read in hospitalThe Mighty Thor Vol.1: Thunder in Her Veins by Jason Aaron (writer) and Russell Dauterman

Yeah, we’re talking the Jane Foster run here. It is brilliant and worthy of many repeated reads but please believe me when I say, Not In The Hospital. At the risk of spoiling a character development point, Jane has breast cancer. There is a lot of emotional baggage that comes with cancer and it is not the type of stuff you should try to manage when sitting in the hospital waiting rooms, anxious about your loved ones. Choose something a bit more light and fluffy like Mark Waid’s Black Widow: S.H.I.E.L.D’s Most Wanted.

Before you rush off to purchase your reading material, please know you are not alone. Waiting at the hospital is never a fun experience. Whether it is short or long, everyone needs something to take the stress away—even if just for a moment. Reading is a great tool for that.

I hope your wait is short and your results uplifting. May your nurses be kind and doctors be gentle, even with hard truths. May your books provide you with a short escape and your community (both online and IRL) be your support. And always always share any other suggestions for the “best books to read in hospital” with us on social media.