Death is a somewhat taboo subject, one that most people are uncomfortable discussing – despite the fact that dying is one of the few things all humans (and animals, and plants) have in common. We don’t want to think about it, so we avoid discussing it, we fail to plan for it, and the end is often worse than it has to be.
However, a number of books recently have raised the topic of death and dying, and these books have been tremendously popular. Here are a few books – memoirs, nonfiction, novels, even graphic novels – whose articulate authors confront the topic with intelligence, humor, and empathy.
Dying: a memoir by Cory Taylor (2017): “Australian writer Taylor, who found herself out of treatment options for melanoma-related brain cancer, reflects on the end of her life in this unflinchingly honest memoir,” the Publishers Weekly review begins. The Kirkus review ends, “There is an ever expanding body of literature on coming to terms with mortality, and this entry ranks with the best.” A slim 152 pages, but Taylor makes every word count.
The Bright Hour: a memoir of living and dying by Nina Riggs (2017): Riggs, a poet, wife, and mother, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37; the cancer metastasized and became terminal. BookPage writes, “The Bright Hour is an introspective, well-considered tribute to life. As Riggs’ famed ancestor Emerson writes, ‘That is morning; to cease for a bright hour to be a prisoner of this sickly body and to become as large as the World.'”
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016): A writer and a doctor, Kalanithi had nearly completed his residency in neurosurgery when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is “a moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.” (Kirkus) With a moving epilogue by his wife, also a doctor.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande (2014): Surgeon and author Gawande Being confronts the difficult conversations that we avoid having: conversations about aging and dying. Even many doctors are not comfortable broaching these topics with their patients, focusing instead on individual problems they can fix instead of the overall picture. While adult children might feel that safety and longevity are priorities for their aging parents, the elderly themselves may be more concerned about their quality of life and having autonomy. Gawande writes with thoughtfulness and compassion.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (2014) Cartoonist for The New Yorker Roz Chast wrote this graphic novel about taking care of her aging parents, first at their home in Brooklyn, then moving them to a “Place” closer to her home in Connecticut. This is less about death than about decline, and how parent/child relationships change: frustrating, funny, and sad.
This Star Won’t Go Out: the life and words of Esther Grace Earl (2014): Readers of The Fault in Our Stars may know that Hazel Grace was inspired by a real girl, Esther, who died of cancer when she was 16. Esther Earl’s story is here, told through letters, journal entries, sketches, CaringBridge posts, and stories about her by friends and family.
Stitches: a handbook on meaning, hope, and repair by Anne Lamott (2013): Lamott is “an unusually hip, demotic, urbane kind of Christian,” and this “handbook” has plenty of appeal for readers beyond a Christian audience. Lamott “explores how we can find significance in the face of pain or disaster” (Publishers Weekly).
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens (2012): Famously opinionated writer and cultural critic Hitchens, diagnosed with esophageal cancer, “in his typically unflinching and bold manner…candidly shares his thoughts about his suffering, the etiquette of illness and wellness, and religion in this stark and powerful memoir” (Publishers Weekly). “Spare as it is and culled from several of his final Vanity Fair columns, this pamphlet-like tome resurrects great wit and insight from his final year of living dyingly” (Booklist).
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow (2008): “Time is all you have…and you may find one day that you have less than you think.” Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, gave a now-famous “last lecture” after he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer; a version of the lecture was published in book form.
Life on the Refrigerator Door: a novel in notes by Alice Kuipers (2007): Teenage Claire and her hardworking ob-gyn mother communicate in post-it notes they leave for each other on the refrigerator door. The format lends poignancy to the story, as it becomes clear that Claire’s mother is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, yet the two, though close, rarely see each other.
Dying isn’t a fun topic, and these aren’t easy books to read, but you may find them to be inspiring, helpful in starting conversations with loved ones, even a source of (dark) humor.
Looking for a mystery, historical fiction, or short stories instead? See previous readalike posts here.