Global Healing

Thornber, Karen

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Annotated by:
Bruell , Lucy
  • Date of entry: Dec-09-2020
  • Last revised: Dec-14-2020


Karen Thornber is the Harry Tuchman Levin Professor in Literature and Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard. In this expansive nearly 700 page book, she draws on work from global literature to explore the many ways societies view illness, stigma and healing.  She defines global literature as “narratives that grapple with challenges and crises that have global implications or counterparts globally, whether at present, in the past, or likely in the future” (p.10). 

The book is divided into three sections: Shattering Stigmas, in which she looks at Leprosy, AIDS, and Alzheimer’s disease; Humanizing Healthcare; and Prioritizing Partnerships.  Among the topics she addresses are patient-focused care as an imperative, the need to advance partnerships in caregiving, and support that extends beyond family and friends to the patient’s relationships with health professionals.  Healing, she notes, involves “changing the circumstances that exacerbate or even trigger a health condition, enabling the individual to obtain long-term wellbeing liberated from as much distress, if not disease, as possible.” (P331).

Thornber has selected literature that addresses the illness experience and the need to reduce suffering and promote healing, which she places within three interwoven  frameworks:  “Societies/communities, healthcare settings, and families/ friendships” (p.583).  She looks at both positive approaches to care as well as the negative impact of suffering, whether from stigma, inaccessibility to care, or dehumanized care. The book considers literary works from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Oceania, many that will be new to readers.  


This is a valuable reference work for professionals in the field of medical and health humanities and for the public interested in how illness and healing are depicted in world literature.  The author cites novels, poems, essays, memoirs and nonfiction narratives. Meticulously researched by Professor Thornber and her research team, the book includes references to works published in their original languages as well as work that has been translated into other languages.  This is especially valuable in its recognition of how culture and belief systems impact our understanding of health and caring for one another.  The volume contains extensive footnotes and a 71-page bibliography.


Brill Rodopi

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