You would think that the world’s best medical bookstore would be in an English-speaking country, right? Actually, it very well might be in Italy.
I have been to medical bookstores all over the world, including in San Francisco, New York, and Paris, three of the world’s capitals for medical education. I have not been to London’s medical bookstores, but friends there tell me that the city’s great medical bookshops have essentially been online-retailed out of business. However, outside the English-speaking world, it is still generally less expensive to buy English-language books, from a brick-and-mortar store, than online. Hence, you can still find big English-language bookshops in continental Europe. There is one in Milan called Libreria Cortina, whose staff have told me directly that they adhere to the philosophy, “you really should pick up a book and browse through it, before knowing whether or not you want to buy it.”
The basement of Cortina, which contains the medical sciences section, is a warren of rooms, stacked floor-to-ceiling with medical books. It has plenty of books in Italian, but about an equal amount in English. To give you a sense of the huge selection in this store: at the Columbia University Medical Bookstore in New York City, I found three different English histology textbooks. At Cortina, I found 14. Medical professionals and students in Italy really have no choice but to read English-language books, because most of the literature of the field has not been translated into Italian. Furthermore, English medical books are in high demand in Milan, because the city has three English-language medical schools (IMS, Humanitas, and San Raffaele), probably more than any other city outside the anglophone world (except for Rome, which also has three — but no bookstore, it seems, as good as the Milan Cortina).
Cortina has one of my favorite books in the world, the charming, intelligent, and appropriately-funny-at-times Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine. For reasons I do not understand, I have never found this book in America. Cortina even has the pocket-edition, which I had never seen before.
Cortina has multiple shelves dedicated to every specialty, from pediatrics to nursing to forensic medicine, not to mention related disciplines like the natural sciences — physics and chemistry — as well as the social — like epidemiology and social work. A number of the books are special editions, out-of-print, or otherwise would never be found in a corporate bookstore. They were ordered, one would guess, for the special purposes of a customer who ended up not coming back to buy them. You would not find these books anywhere else. For anyone who cares about medicine, Cortina is a paradise to browse.
The store is located across the street from the main university campus, on the via Festa del Perdono. My one qualm with Cortina? Over its doorway, someone has scrawled, in big black bubbly letters, graffiti so profane that I would not put its picture on this blog. This graffiti certainly unbefits a bookstore of its caliber. Twice I have asked the shopkeepers why they do not erase or paint over this graffiti, and both times, basically, they gave me a shrug, as if it somehow were not a big deal.
One of the greatest general English-language bookstores in the world happens to be Shakespeare and Co. — in Paris. That store is historical — Hemingway spent time there — and remains stacked floor-to-ceiling with books one would never find at a typical huge chain store, like Barnes and Nobel or Blackwell’s. Shakespeare and Co. can get away with it, because it cannot be monopolized out of business. So while it may be surprising that such great English-language bookstores would be on foreign soil, it does make sense. Outside the English-speaking world the lack of corporate pressures seems to prevent the most thorough and idiosyncratic bookshops from being driven out of business. Indeed, Cortina may be the Shakespeare and Co. of medical bookstores.
Erik Campano is a consultant to the English medical school of the University of Turin and doing a Master's degree studying artificial intelligence applications in global health at the University of Umeå, Sweden. He completed his Bachelor’s of science in Symbolic Systems at Stanford University, and then he worked for about eight years as a radio news anchor, before moving to biomedical scientific study and research at the University of Paris and Columbia University. His goal is to develop AI technologies for international emergency humanitarian aid organizations like Doctors without Borders, and to combine medicine and journalism. Erik grew up in Connecticut, and is a citizen of the United States and Germany.
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