Narrative Medicine Book Club: Magic Mountain Week 9

Week 9: In this week’s pages, Hans Castorp and his cousin begin a practice of visiting the sick and dying at Berghof. Each time they do this, Castorp feels “his whole being expand with a joy rooted in a sense of helpfulness and quiet importance, but intermingled with a certain jaunty delight in the spotless Christian impression his good deeds made–an impression so devout, caring, and praiseworthy, in fact, that no serious objections whatever could be raised against it…” A fascinating series of encounters are detailed, culminating at the end of the section with the visits to the young woman Karen Kartedt, who lives outside of the sanatorium, and who the cousins take on various outings and, eventually, to the cemetery where she will soon be interred. But maybe my favorite moment is when Mann describes going to the movies! I have to quote it in its entirety: “There was no one there to clap for, to thank, no artistic achievement to reward with a curtain call. The actors who had been cast in the play they had just seen had long since been scattered to the winds; they had watched only phantoms, whose deeds had been reduced to a million photographs brought into focus for the briefest of moments so that, as often as one liked, they could then be given back to the element of time as a series of blinking flashes. Once the illusion was over, there was something repulsive about the crowd’s nerveless silence. Hands lay impotent before the void. People rubbed their eyes, stared straight ahead, felt embarrassed by the brightness and demanded the return of the dark, so that they could again watch things, whose time had passed, come to pass again, tricked out with music and transplanted into new time.” 

For next week: Read to the section “Someone Else” in Chapter 6. 

Narrative Medicine Book Club: Magic Mountain, Week 8

Week 8: This week’s pages were my favorite in the book so far. From the examination of Director Behrens’ paintings and in particular his portrait of Madame Chauchat, leading Castorp to expound on the link between science and art, how they “blend together because they have actually always been just one thing,” and into his new interest in studying human anatomy and the question of “what is life”…to that incredible pages-long rumination on life and on human anatomy all the way down to the molecular level. Wow! The writing here is nothing short of transcendent. Too many passages to quote; this last chapter, “Research,” is for me reason alone to read this entire book. Who’s with me??

For next week: Read to section “Walpurgis Night” in Chapter 5

Narrative Medicine Book Club: Magic Mountain, Week 6

Week 6: Castorp stays in bed for three weeks, “impounded by fate.” Time collapses — “it is always the same day – it just keeps repeating itself … [so] it is surely not correct to speak of ‘repetition.’ One should speak of monotony, of an abiding now, of eternalness.” This description reminded me of the eternal present tense of our recent months in quarantine. Castorp has fully become “one of them,” though as he is “only slightly ill” he is “considered inferior by local standards,” a fascinating clue to the logic of this place, and one Castorp abides by. He and his cousin go and have their X-rays done (the Clavdia obsession deepens!), and Castorp is unnerved both at seeing the “interior” of his cousin’s body and of his own hand, feeling in both cases that it is an encounter with the grave. One aspect surely of what this entire stay in the sanatorium has been? 

For next week: read to the section “Humaniora” in Chapter 5.

And join our zoom meeting next week, July 12th, at 11 am! Go to to register.

Narrative Medicine Book Club: Magic Mountain, Week 5

Week 5: In this week’s pages Castorp gets his first official “admittance” to the sanatorium as a “patient” rather than a “visitor.” It feels inevitable to us, of course, knowing he will stay, and having watched Castorp’s progression up to now. But for me maybe the most fascinating element of the book so far is the way that Mann makes this slide into illness feel not only inevitable but also, for Castorp, desirable. He feels pangs at the idea of leaving his cousin up there alone, but the reader understands he actually doesn’t want to go.The near giddiness with which he takes his temperature! Also his obsession with Frau Chauchant is fascinating, and I look forward to discussing it with you all (he loves her, and yet has no plans to speak to her, and calls her “worm-eaten”)! And at the end of chapter 4, with some relief, he is declared “secretly one of the locals,” and ordered to bed. 

For next week: Read to the section “Freedom” in Chapter 5. 

Also: Our next zoom meeting with be July 12th, 11am EST (moved one week because of July 4th holiday). More details TK!

Narrative Medicine Book Club: Magic Mountain Week 4

Week 4: The attached quote, referring to the idea of a sick physician (in a paragraph questioning whether a person who is sick can nurse “others in the same way a healthy person can”), seems particularly apt for our current moment, as our country begins (hopefully) to reckon seriously with the ways systemic racism is built into our foundations. We spoke on our zoom call sunday about the ways Magic Mountain is allegorical or metaphorical, a theme that will no doubt come up over and again as we move through it. How purposeful was it for Mann not to explicitly name Tuberculosis, so the illness/sanatorium becomes more generalized and therefore more easily metaphorical? I keep thinking about the subtle strangenesses in this world — the way Castorp’s cigar tastes terrible, for example — small details that suggest to us that this is a world with its own rules. And how this otherworldliness then frees Mann to really be able to move anywhere he wants to go. How about Dr. Krokowski’s speech, declaring “any symptom of illness was a masked form of love in action, and illness was merely transformed love”? Looking forward to talking about that idea with all of you, and to seeing the way Mann weaves it into his book. 

For next week: Read to the end of Chapter 4.

Narrative Medicine Book Club: Magic Mountain Week 3

Week 3: Hans Castorp has barely been at the sanatorium even a week, but he feels he has been there “a very long time” – the reader, too, feels a sense of expanded time, and wonders at the way that Mann, the writer, is creating for us a sense of what his character is experiencing. Many interesting themes are emerging in these pages — the relation between body and soul, between sickness and health, between memory and feeling (what is it that Castorp keeps almost remembering when he encounters Madame Chauchant?), and of course, the nature of time. What is happening, really, as Castorp slowly becomes “one of them,” settling into the life of an ill person in this sanatorium? The hints and movements of the transformation are fascinating; this transformation seems, so far anyway, to be the main “plot” of the book. Subtly, with this transformation, Mann seems to challenge us to ask about the very nature of illness and of time, and the way the two may relate to one another. 

Looking forward our first zoom meeting tomorrow, Sunday June 14, at 11 AM! Register at

For next week: Read to the section “Growing Anxieties/Two Grandfathers” in Chapter 4. 

Narrative Medicine Book Club: June 5, 2020

Dear NM Book Club members: This week, in solidarity with the ongoing protests around the country, we have decided to take a pause on our reading of The Magic Mountain in order to give space and time to those voices. We will resume next week (and will send next assignment then), and our zoom meeting previously scheduled for this Sunday at noon will be moved to next Sunday (June 14th) at 11 AM (if you already registered, the event has been updated and therefore there’s nothing you need to do, and for anyone not registered yet, the link can be found as always at In the meantime, we urge you to engage with and support the fight for racial justice in whatever way makes the most sense for you: donate, protest, call your elected officials, and, of course, read and talk with others. Here is an anti-racist reading list from Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to be an Anti-Racist, as well as a list of black-owned bookstores to support:

Anti-Racist Reading List from Ibram X. Kendi:

Black-owned bookstores:

Narrative Medicine Book Club: Magic Mountain, Week 2

Week 2: We are learning more about life at the sanatorium and getting a sense of the cast of characters. Castorp and his cousin eat lavish meals, take their “rest cures” in the terrifically comfortable balcony chairs, and we see Castorp beginning to be acclimatized to the life of being a “patient” without necessarily being aware of it (I’m guessing that very soon he will buy a thermometer). There are hints that this place works with different rules, perhaps, than elsewhere — Castorp’s cigar is disgusting to him as it never is, no matter how he tries to enjoy it. And the “Half-Lung Club”! Can someone who knows about how lungs work please explain to us how far-fetched (or not!) that whole thing is?? I appreciated what Castorp says about understanding; when his cousin says he will come to understand that “things are serious only down below in real life,” Castorp says, “I’m already taking a great deal of interest in all of you up here, and once one is interested, why then understanding follows as a matter of course, doesn’t it?” This seems so profound and true to me, and a very important message for out current moment — curiosity, interest, being the things that lead to understanding (and understanding, in so many situations, to peace). 

For Week 3: Read up to the section title “Politically Suspect” in Chapter 4. 

Narrative Medicine Book Club: Magic Mountain, Week 1

So we begin our journey with The Magic Mountain! Approximately 40 pages in and I, for one, am already hooked. I love how Mann signals so clearly in the Foreword how this book will be concerned primarily with the “problematic and uniquely double nature of that mysterious element,” time. Given our current pandemic quarantine status, I am very much here for this exploration. 

In chapter 1, Hans Castorp travels from Hamburg, his hometown — from his “everyday world,” bustling with work and preoccupations — to a Sanatorium high up in the mountains, presumably for a “rest” and to see his cousin. “He had not planned to take this trip particularly seriously, to become deeply involved in it,” but even in the first few pages his perception begins to be altered. “‘Home in three weeks,'” says his cousin, “‘that’s a notion from down below.'” I love how simply and matter-of-factly all is described in this first chapter, and yet how subtly strange it all is, so as a reader you get the sense of a very real-life place and also a place where absolutely any fantastic thing could happen. There is a distinct ominousness — the cough that Castorp hears, for example, which is “not even human,” and the sense the reader has that Castorp has landed here for a very long time, even if he doesn’t know it (always a creepy feeling to know things, when reading, that your character doesn’t yet know). 

Chapter 2 gives us a bit of Hans Castorp’s back story – we learn that he has been well-acquainted with death from a young age, having lost his parents and his grandfather before he was ten, and then was raised by his uncle. I was struck by this statement, which seems highly relevant to our present moment: “…the damage inflicted by the times on someone’s personal life can have a direct influence on that person’s physical organism.” Not news, but a reminder of how our personal circumstances — our actual organisms — are intricately connected to the times we are living in, and therefore to each other – and another way Mann reminds us of the importance of the “mysterious element.” 

For next week: Read up to the section titled “But of course – a female!” in Chapter 3.  

AND: WE HAVE AN EMAIL LIST! Go to and sign up to receive updates on the Book Club specifically, including reading schedule, thoughts, and dates and times for our live discussions: 

Narrative Medicine Book Club: May 2, 2020

And so we reach the end of Camus’ plague, and the end of the novel. The narrator is revealed, and expresses his desire to  be an “objective witness,” taking “the side of the victim,” “on the basis of the only certainties [we] all have in common, which are love, suffering and exile.” The last paragraph reminds us of what is true for plagues and also for evil, Camus’ true subject: that “the plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely,” but can remain dormant and return “for the instruction or misfortune of mankind.” Still, Rieux’s conclusion — what “one learns in the midst of such tribulations” – is, ultimately, “that there is more in men to admire than to despise.” 

Thank you for joining us for this experience!! Looking forward to our last meeting tomorrow at 12pm, with translator Laura Marris – register at See you then!