A selection of stories from The New Yorker's archive
Literary scholars have a theory about detective stories: they say that they express our fears about modern life. Living in a big city, far from your family, you don't know whom to trust; as a result, you come to regard everybody with a healthy dose of skepticism. If that's true, then what do medical mysteries—stories of unaccountable illnesses and clever cures—say about us? This week, we bring you seven such stories. In Atul Gawande's "The Itch," a woman starts scratching and can't stop; her horrifying plight has the side effect of revealing something about the way our brains work. Similarly, Richard Preston's "An Error in the Code" explores a rare disorder that causes people to harm themselves; it offers a window into the laws that govern normal human behavior. Stories like these—and Oliver Sacks's "The Case of Anna H.," about a woman who loses the ability to recognize objects—seem to evoke the combined wonder and fear we feel in response to new discoveries about the frailties of the human body. Other pieces, such as Cynthia Zarin's "An Enlarged Heart" and Laura Hillenbrand's "A Sudden Illness," speak to the fact that, in an age of technological predictability, our health is one part of life over which we have relatively little control. Finally, Berton Roueché's "Sandy" (concerning a case of mass hysteria at a Florida elementary school) and Margaret Talbot's "The Bad Mother" (about parents who fake their children's illnesses) are about how, sometimes, people are so unknowable that even the scientific community finds itself flummoxed. Considered together, the pieces below suggest that often it's not other people we need to watch out for—it's ourselves.