Let’s talk about death.
Okay, I know you’ve got to get to your tennis match. Or cook dinner, or check Twitter, or wash your hair.
But, really, let’s talk about death. We live in a culture that aggressively pretends that death isn’t on its way. Botox, Viagra, liposuction, “50 is the new 30” — all are efforts to deny that each of us has only so much time. Yet, for each of us, the clock is ticking.
In John Barth’s 2008 collection of interconnected short stories The Development, one of the characters comes up with an estimate of the number of beats his heart has pumped over his 68 years — 3,771,800, give or take a few thousand. It’s a reminder that there are only so many thousand more to go.
That’s what great literature does – reminds us of our coming death. Sometimes, it does this indirectly. Any book that grapples with the pain and confusions and joys of life has as a context the reality of death. Death raises the question of what it all means. There are no do-overs.
At other times, the writer is looking death in the face. Bodies, for instance, litter the stage in most of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
When it comes to books that directly engage death — death books — I have my favorites, a list of ten that I present below, both fiction and non-fiction. (It may sound strange to have favorite death books; yet, like Sherwin B. Nuland’s How We Die, a good death book is really a book about life.)
I’m sure there are hundreds of other titles that could be suggested as well. Maybe you have your own list. Here’s mine:
Memento Mori by Muriel Spark (1958) — Guy Leet, aged 75, stooped with various ailments, picks up the phone and hears a schoolboy say: “Remember, you must die.”
Being Dead by Jim Crace (1999) — On the opening page of this novel, Joseph and Celice are already dead, their bodies just starting to decompose. What happens to those bodies over the next six days until they are discovered by police is the story that Jim Crace writes — direct, clear, unblinking, even beautiful in its way. Dead and disintegrating, the bodies are just one more part of the natural world. They are like the grass they lay on, the beetle they trap, the gulls they feed.
But Come Ye Back by Beth Lordan (2004) — I wonder if anyone has written about the waning years of a happy (and, at times, sharp-edged) marriage — about aging and death and life — with as much sensitivity and nuance as Lordan does here.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005) — The longing for connection that each of the characters — and each of us— has is never totally, adequately fulfilled. Death and life are faced alone.
The Development by John Barth (2008) — Barth, that old warhorse of storytelling and metafiction, is wrestling like Jacob with the angel of The End. I.e., the end of me, the end of you, the end of him, the end of his characters.
Every Third Thought by John Barth (2011) — Two-thirds of the way through this novel, Barth has his central characters allude to some lines in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in which Prospero mentions his plan to “retire me to my Milan, where/Every third thought shall be my grave.” This is not a grave narrative in the sense of somber. But much of it runs along the edges of and, at times, deep into the contemplation of death.
Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy by Viktor E. Frankl (initially published 1946, later expanded) — Could life have any meaning for any person living in a world that produced the Holocaust? Even more, could life have any meaning for someone, like Frankl, who found himself in a concentration camp? The answer, Frankl asserts, is “yes.”
The Life and Death of My Mother by Allen Wheelis (1992) — The life and death of Wheelis` mother is not pretty, or simple, or clean. His book begins: “There is a fecal smell in this room. On the bed, unconscious, my mother is slowly bleeding to death from the bowel. Over the radio, faintly, Mahler`s Fourth Symphony. I have switched off the light. Outside the window the shadowy gestures of poplars.”
How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter by Sherwin B. Nuland (1994) — Despite its subject, this is a life-affirming book. Death, seen in the right light, isn’t an enemy to flee from. It is, rather, one often-misunderstood aspect in the miracle of life. We didn’t exist. Then we did. And there will come a time when we exist no more.
Creatures of a Day and Other Tales of Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom (2015) — Yalom deals with the emotions, fears and terrors that human beings — his clients and himself — bring to the subject of death. Indeed, he writes about his own “death anxiety” and how it has affected him throughout his counseling career.
Patrick T. Reardon
This essay originally appeared in the Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune on July 12, 2015. On October 19, 2011, Patrick T. Reardon wrote about planning his own funeral in an essay titled “Thinking the Thinkable” in the Tribune.