Biochemistry can be defined as the study of metabolism, and metabolism is the sum of all chemical reactions in the body. That’s a pretty wide field to cover. Even if your professors clearly explain what you’re expected to know, there will always be information beyond your curriculum that could help you solidify your knowledge. With biochemistry in particular, you can go in two directions, ‘down’ to the chemistry and energetics (repressed undergrad memories bubbling up) or ‘up’ to the clinical correlations and differentials which we hope to know by the time rotations start. Faced with a bewildering array of review books at every point on this spectrum, you might ask yourself, what is the best book to help me in my class, for the boards, and for the wards?
A common recommendation from biochem professors and older students alike was Harvey and Ferrier’s Biochemistry, part of the Lippincott’s Illustrated Reviews series, now in its 5th edition. The bulk of the book is a thorough review of proteins, enzymes, and the metabolism of the macronutrients. It describes and comments on important reaction pathways such as glycolysis, the pentose-phosphate pathway, the citric acid cycle, and mechanisms of amino acid synthesis, combination, and degradation. Later in the book, one unit is devoted to integrating these pathways. For example, one chapter looks at the effect on all systems of insulin and glucagon in the fasting and feeding cycle, with chapters covering diabetes, obesity, and nutrition. The last unit covers the special chemistry of genetic information which aims at preserving and expressing information rather than procuring energy or achieving certain concentrations of building block molecules.
My initial look through the book brought an immediate sense of relief. The book seemed organized with a huge number of clear and helpful illustrations. The text itself is succinct but vigorous, like an old-fashioned news anchor might sound if the news of the day for some reason involved the emulsification of dietary lipids. Blocked out in chapters, sections, and subsections, the writing never feels rote or forced but manages to retain a readable, almost “listenable” tone that contrasts favorably to how some other books smother murmur beneath an avalanche of facts. Throughout the text, the authors build on previous topics and indicate points of intersection between pathways, often in the form of strategically placed charts and figures. At the end of every chapter, there is a summary with keywords highlighted, “key concept map” for the chapter, and a few questions and explanations. When that isn’t enough, the thorough index was often handy.
After spending a lot of time with the book, it becomes evident that the editors spent a lot of time designing the reader’s experience. This has the unexpected consequence of making students read more than intended when looking up a particular topic. Often, the next related topic is familiar but not completely solidified. In context, you make a connection you otherwise wouldn’t have, and you can cross one more topic off your list of things to review.
This attention to the reader’s experience is also responsible for what may be the book’s only downside. The details on the diagrams are so focused on making a point that they sometimes have less information than it would appear. In a larger textbook, a chart showing the effect of a drug on blood glucose concentrations over time would probably be large, simple, uncluttered, and accompanied by a lengthy description of the experiment. Here, it is small, marginal, and crowded with word bubbles with arrows overlappingly pointing out features on the graph to which they’re relevant. The effect is that of a comic book: bold, practical, attention-grabbing, but a little bit tiresome all the same.
Nonetheless, this book is very good for its purposes. Though it is an ideal adjuvant to a textbook, it probably is not a substitute for one if you’re being introduced to biochemistry for the first time. Opinions about it for Boards Review are mixed: though it covers all the topics that are likely to come up, some students feel that it is perhaps too thorough for high-yield review. On the other hand, if you use this book during your biochemistry class, you will probably know where to look for what you need to review. Its lucidity and completeness would then be a plus.
Overall, if you’re looking for a book to help you make sense of biochem – to help you know what’s important and give you a sense of how the discipline is used in medicine – Lippincott Biochemistry is highly recommended.