The peril of reading several books simultaneously and thinking about death.


I often read several books simultaneously and I’m doing just that now. Sometimes it’s hard to keep them all sorted out, especially if they’re treating the same subject matter. That’s especially true right now in terms of my interest in misogyny. Books on the same theme tend to overlap a lot. Books on misogyny are no exception. Same for books on our denial of death although it does depend on whether a book is psychological, philosophical, sociological, historical, or anthropological in its orientation. I just finished reading Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (2014, I think). It’s psychological in a sense while being a quasi-ethnography of hospitals and nursing homes. I give you a bit of a review of this book later in this post but I can tell you right now that it’s all a bit depressing. But, don’t let that discourage you from reading it. It seems the truth is often depressing. Read it anyway and enjoy your depression. At least you’re not dead yet. Ahem.

I usually have at least one art book on the go, but they are more of an ongoing thing rather than a one-off read. Right now I have The Art of Drawing next to my chair. It’s by Richard Kenin (1974, Paddington Press). It soothes my sometimes inexplicably jangled nerves as I leaf through the pages looking at images drawn by the masters of the Renaissance. Well, I’ve been a stress case my whole life as far as I can make out so I need all the help I can get. Renaissance drawings have a calming effect on me. So, I look at them.

The other books I now have on the go are not designed to soothe my nerves. I don’t know why I read some of the books I do, because they can sometimes leave me drained and mentally exhausted, but I read them anyway. It has occurred to me that I may have some masochistic tendencies. Don’t tell my doctor. For fun, I’m reading Iain M. Banks’ book Surface Detail. This is my third Banks novel and although he sets his complex and multilayered stories on a galactic scale, it’s still all about our earthly human level frailties, our fears of life and death and our often undeniable utter stupidity. Banks is a great read but his stories do tend to overlap thematically with my other, non-fictional reads. So, I don’t always get a reprieve from my depression by reading him, but he is entertaining and that’s a bonus.

I read a lot of books about mortality and lately quite a few on misogyny. It turns out the two themes are intrinsically and historically intertwined and interdependent. It sometimes amazes me that after most of my adult life, going on 50 years now, reading and thinking about mortality that I can still get excited about reading something new and different yet on the same topic. It’s too bad I can’t get equally as excited about other things but I am getting on, you understand. If you haven’t read them yet, you may want to read my last few posts on misogyny and its relationship with our immortality striving.

For a long time, I’ve had a passing notion that misogyny and our denial of death were related, but I had no idea how closely related until I read Misogyny by Jack Holland. Now, on misogyny, I’m reading From Eve To Dawn by Marilyn French. It’s a study on the history of women from a feminist perspective first published in Canada in 2002. I wrote about this book in a previous post. This reading follows others by Simone de Beauvoir and Germain Greer to name just two. Busy, busy, I am. I must admit that I’m getting a bit saturated with this topic, but it does get at the heart of what human history has been all about so I carry on reading about it.

I have read a lot of books on how we, as humans, have devised multitudinous means of trying to deny our mortality. The latest book in my quiver on mortality is by Atul Gawande. I told you in my opening paragraph that I would give you a bit of a review of his book and here it is. Gawande’s book is close to home because I’m feeling my age, and time passes so quickly that I can see myself in his book at a very personal and immediate level. One day soon, I will die. That’s a given. Tomorrow is promised to no one. How my demise plays out is up in the air at the moment but I would like a good death if you can relate to that. I have no expectation of imminent death, but at 71, my days are numbered. That’s a fact.

Gawande is a surgeon. His book is personal in the sense that he follows his father’s (he was also a surgeon) physical decline late in his life, especially after his father learns that he has a massive tumour that has invaded his upper spine and neck causing him no end of pain. Gawande is a fixer. Like most medical doctors he is programmed to fix things that go wrong with us. He’s good at that. What he understands, however, is  that there are things that go wrong with us that can’t be fixed, like death. He writes that modern medicine and the whole ‘health’ system is geared to fixing things that go wrong with our bodies. Inevitably, of course, all the fixing is in vain and we die. He argues that in large measure medicine does not understand chronic pain and illness, cannot fix it, and is completely flummoxed by death. It’s the ultimate failure for modern doctors. Moreover, modern medicine can increase pain and suffering at the time of death by pushing treatments that falsely promise more than they can deliver. This is especially true with patients who are terminally ill with cancer, no matter at what age.

Gawande also goes after how we are treated in our last months, weeks and days of life particularly if we live in a nursing home. He has a special hate on for nursing homes that warehouse the ill and aged and he praises those that allow ‘inmates’ a certain amount of freedom in determining how they will live, ever with their disabilities. He argues that safety and efficiency are highly overrated as nursing home goals. He presents case studies of nursing homes that respect the dignity of their residents.

Gawande tells a good story while he argues that our obsession with immortality is killing us and denying us respectful deaths. The case studies he presents of young and old people struggling with terminal illness as they interact with their doctors who try to fix them are heart wrenching. I’m not looking forward to this type of scenario myself, you can be assured of that. There will be a big fat Do Not Resuscitate sign around my neck when my time comes. His work remind me of Kübler-Ross’s epic study of The Five Stages of Grief in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Her book is much more theoretical than Gawande’s, but it had a huge impact when it first came out because people were shocked that someone would write so openly about dying.

Maybe reading several books at a time is my way of denying death. Then again, maybe not. I concluded long ago that life is largely meaningless in the grand scheme of things but while I live I have to do something. I can’t just stand around picking my nose. So, I might just as well read several books at once while I wait for the final call. It won’t matter shite when I’m gone anyway.

Oh, and by the way, I’m about to start another book. It’s by Yuval Noah Harari and is called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Wish me luck.

8 thoughts on “The peril of reading several books simultaneously and thinking about death.

  1. At this point in your life, you deserve to do what you want to do. I’ve noticed that since I, whom am just a few years younger than you, am finally getting to do the things I enjoy every day (even the days when I sleep a lot). It feels wonderful and, I hope ut will be enjoyable for others as well–photography, writing, and possibly even music again. I notice that I experience less pain when I choose to do what I love.

  2. Dear Roger: You may be depressed but you can be damned humorous while you are going about it! I too read Gawande’s book but some time ago now, which is fortunate because I’ve forgotten most of it, yet I remember my feelings of fear and disgust during that reading. However, like you, I was fascinated enough to read every word. Some sort of self punishment? Or just knowledge-gaining?

    1. Well, Bette, I try to see the humour in things, even morbid ones! I’ve been studying death as a scholarly subject for a long time and, of course, I’ve been living dying too and the older I get, the closer the last gasp becomes and no matter how it comes. I had a friend die of pancreatic cancer recently. He died six weeks after he was diagnosed. Sometimes it happens that quickly. With my mother who died in January it was a long, morphine filled excruciation. Gawande’s book is not particularly erudite but it is ‘in your face’ with end of life details for a number of his patients, some quite young.
      I’m fascinated by the whole life process from its biochemistry to its sociology and history. Death is as necessary to our existence as life. Life and death are not opposites; living and dying are the same process.
      Thanks for your comment.

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