Essential Reading for the Beginning Ophthalmologist

If you polled various ophthalmologists, I think that you would find very different opinions about what is considered “essential reading.”  For this reason, I am very open to suggestions on what should be added (or subtracted) from this list.  For now, this is a list of the textbooks I found most helpful as I began my studies.

To keep this list short (and keep everyone from going bankrupt buying textbooks), I tried to keep this list fairly short.  Basically, if you had these texts for the whole of residency and was diligent to learn the material in them, you probably will do well on your tests and have a strong foundation of knowledge for your clinical practice.

*Disclaimer:  The prices listed below may fluctuate or change.

Basic and Clinical Science Course (13-volume set)

Authors/Editors:  Various
Publisher:  American Academy of Ophthalmology
Most recent edition:  2016-2017
Estimated price(s):  $955.00 (eBook edition, AAO member), $1,115.00 (print edition, AAO member), $1,445.00 (eBook + print, AAO member)

Say what you will about the AAO and the BCSC text, but for a beginning resident or someone wanting to brush up on the details of the basic science of ophthalmology, this extremely detailed tome covers virtually all the basics of ophthalmology.  Each year the AAO releases a major revision of 3-4 volumes and minor revisions of the other volumes, so that every 3 years all 13 volumes will be updated to reflect the most current information.  It’s also now available in a digital version for those people who prefer reading on their tablets.  Personally, I learned best when I held the books in my hands and highlighted/underlined every word on the page.


  • Very detailed and covers the essentials of ophthalmology
  • Material remains up-to-date (major revision of 3-4 volumes each year and minor revisions of the other volumes each year)
  • Tons of diagrams, pictures, and captions to illustrate almost every major eye disease
  • Extremely readable and high-yield
  • Summaries of the major clinical studies within ophthalmology are provided
  • It is the standard text for all European ophthalmology residency programs (so if you’re training in Europe, this is extremely essential!)


  • The entire series is extremely long and takes a long time to read through (see my BCSC reading schedule article for more info)
  • For a resident, spending anywhere from $955 (e-Book only) to $1,085 (e-Book, Residency Set) may not be financially feasible unless your residency program pays for the texts or you are independently wealthy (and if you are, please send me an e-mail!)
  • With major revisions every year, there may be either a compulsion to buy the updated books each year (typically costing around $400/year) or to just stick with what was learned in residency and potentially miss out on crucial updates to clinical practice

How I use this textbook:

The BCSC series formed the core of my study material in residency.  My residency program emphasized the importance of having a solid foundation of the basic knowledge essential to ophthalmology, and that included strongly encouraging every resident to have read through the entire BCSC text (excluding Sections 1 and 3).  Through the course of my 3-year residency, I’m pretty sure that I read through my texts at least 7-10 times.  I realize that most residents will not have the time nor the interest to get through the texts that much and will still go on to become excellent ophthalmologists and eye surgeons, so I am not in any way trying to promote that level of study insanity for all.  At the same time, I do believe that my training allows me to recognize certain clinical patterns and conditions that otherwise would leave me stumped.  Also, having read through the texts as many times as I had, I didn’t have to open the BCSC books at all when I started studying for the board exams.

The Wills Eye Manual: Office and Emergency Room Diagnosis and Treatment of Eye Disease

Authors/Editors:  Nika Bagheri, M.D., Brynn Wajda, M.D., Charles Calvo, M.D., and Alia Durrani, M.D.
Publisher:  Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins
Most recent edition:  7th (June 3, 2016)
Estimated price(s):  $90.24 (print, Amazon), $69.82 (Kindle, Amazon)

In terms of length, the Wills Eye Manual is everything the BCSC is not:  succinct, “just the facts,” and 100% clinically-oriented.  Not that there was much fluff in the BCSC in the clinical sections, but the Wills Eye Manual really doesn’t give much detail from a basic science standpoint but rather focuses on the step-by-step process of managing the patient in your chair.  So while you will probably not learn about hereditary retinal dystrophies by reading the Wills Eye Manual, you will be able to have confidence in knowing how to evaluate the most common eye conditions.


  • Pictures for most eye conditions
  • Format is very readable and practical
  • Step-by-step instructions on how to perform many of the basic clinical tests (e.g., culturing a corneal ulcer, performing a tap-and-inject, etc.)
  • Decent differential diagnosis for each condition
  • Practical management-heavy
  • Short and compact makes it white coat pocket-sized


  • It’s not considered appropriate to read it in front of the patient
  • Not necessarily the text of choice when trying to learn the basic science
  • Does not discuss some of the rarer conditions discussed in the BCSC

How I use this textbook:

I had a Wills Eye Manual with me almost everywhere in residency.  I carried it with me on call, I had it in my exam room, etc.  While I did not read this book cover-to-cover as I did with the BCSC, I consulted it so much during residency I probably ended up reading most of its content over the course of those 3 years.  This was a FANTASTIC study resource when preparing for the oral board exam, as the test is supposed to evaluate clinical knowledge of how to manage common ophthalmic diseases.  It pretty much outlines the approach you’d want to take with oral board prompts – describing the findings, discussing a differential diagnosis, listing what diagnostic test could help evaluate the condition, and what treatment course is most helpful.  Even now in clinical practice I still look at my Wills Eye Manual from time to time to brush up on managing different eye conditions I don’t see as often, such as dry eyes or blepharitis.  😉

Kanski’s Clinical Ophthalmology: A Systematic Approach

Authors/Editors:  Brad Bowling, FRCSEd(Ophth), FRCOphth, FRANZCO
Publisher:  Saunders Ltd.
Most recent edition:  8th (June 5, 2015)
Estimated price(s):  $244.67 (print, Amazon), $207.99 (Kindle, Amazon) $259.99 (print,

While the information listed above is for the 8th edition, my review is on the 7th edition.  I have to say that this is one of my favorite textbooks to read.  It is simply gorgeous – whoever designed the layout did a phenomenal job.  As with previous editions, this text is formatted as an outline.  The information is brief and succinct, similar to the Wills Eye Manual, but there’s a lot more emphasis on clinical associations.  Key concepts are bolded, and there are practical asides for clinical procedures, such as how to perform an ALT/SLT.  Depending on where you purchase the textbook, you may even be able to get online access to the text and be able to read each section as a separate PDF document.  The best feature, though, is the images.  Large high-resolution images of all the major (and some rare) diseases are displayed in a very readable format with helpful captions.  This book is a work of art.


  • Tons of high-quality pictures
  • Succinct
  • Clinical associations (systemic diseases, specific clinical findings, etc.) are emphasized
  • Outline format keeps the information very practical
  • Online access to the textbook through Expert Consult


  • Not completely comprehensive
  • Level of detail may not be enough for some conditions

How I use this textbook:

I treated this textbook as supplemental reading for clarification when I didn’t quite understand the information presented in the BCSC.  When it came time for studying for my oral board exams, the images were an awesome resource to help me review common and rare images as prompts.  Even now, I still reference this book when I am looking to review a concept or procedure.

What do you think?  Are there any textbooks you think should be added to the essentials list?  Leave a comment!