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An idea for a book worth writing


My way to The New Yorker
Sherwin Nuland Surgeon
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Well, to everyone's amazement, not only was the book reviewed in the Times Sunday Book Review, but in those days, the Book of the Month Club had a single selection and an alternate. That's… they didn't offer you a zillion books, just a… and it was an alternate selection for Book of the Month Club. So, holy crow, what a surprise! A surgeon, while he's working, is between cases, rushing off to the library, which was about two football fields away from the operating room, and writing this book, you know, not even stopping to look what he'd written, and it gets this great review in the Times, it starts selling very, very well. It never made the bestseller list, actually, but sold a very substantial number of copies, and is still selling today, by the way. And gee. Bob Gottlieb, though, let me down. He was invited to be the editor of The New Yorker, and he left Knopf and became the editor of New Yorker. Well, I had just published my book, and the last chapter of the book was a chapter on heart transplantation. So I can't remember the exact circumstances, but he says to me, why don't you write an article on heart transplantation for The New Yorker? And I said that would be a terrific idea. I called my friend, who was the chief of cardiology, who gave me the name of a person who was on the list for a heart transplant and he said, you'll like this guy a lot. And I did. We got along very well. And he… they never got a heart for him. He died without getting his transplant, after about six months of the two of us spending a lot of time together. And so I said to my cardiology friend, 'Don't let's do this again. When there's a patient on the operating table, call me, I'll go'. And that's just what happened. I went to watch a heart transplant, and then later I spent time with this fellow who survived, and I wrote an article for The New Yorker, one of… they called it Annals of Medicine, about heart transplantation. And I'll… you know, again, I was a surgeon. I was doing my regular surgical stuff. And we… Sarah and I went down to New York on a Friday evening. We were going to have dinner, just spend the evening in New York, and it was the… and The New Yorker came out on Friday at that time, and we were driving down West End Avenue, and I remember driving and looking up at these houses, you know, all those buildings, 70s, 60s, 80s, where all the New York intellectuals live, the Upper West Side, and thinking to myself: they all read The New Yorker. Everybody up there is reading my article right now. And many of them probably were.

Sherwin Nuland (1930-2014) was an American surgeon and author who taught bioethics, the history of medicine, and medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine. He wrote the book How We Die which made The New York Times bestseller list and won the National Book Award. He also wrote about his own painful coming of age as a son of immigrants in Lost in America: A Journey with My Father. He used to write for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Time, and the New York Review of Books.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, Annals of Medicine, Robert Gottlieb, Sarah Peterson

Duration: 3 minutes, 21 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2011

Date story went live: 04 November 2011