A Writerly Respect For Death


Now I realize it is a dazzling, sunny afternoon in San Francisco. People are no doubt reading books at Zeitgeist as I advised them to this morning. Children and dogs are cavorting in the parks. In fact, right now, I’m at a cafe that is holding a children’s musical recital. Not that I planned on attending it but it serves as a rather surreal backdrop to what I’m pondering. Which is death. And how we write about it.

Recently, at the bookstores I’ve been working at, I’ve noticed a glaring trend in new and recent books: Death. Heaps of Death! With evocative titles too.

Now I’m as obsessed with death as the next writer although I tend to hide my  fixations as best I can. Not so with the recent batch of non-fiction books that blatantly confront and interrogate the ultimate mystery itself.  It could be that I work at a bookstore where some very clever employee decided to line up a display of new and recent non-fiction hardbacks, all of which are in debt to Thanatos and make no bones about it. And I’ve been staring them down for awhile now, wondering whether I should read them, whether maybe their wisdom will add anything to my awfully meager knowledge of death. Or whether anything really can be added. Their titles alone are pithy, often disturbing commentary on the sheer ridiculousness of being alive at one moment, and being void at another:

When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris.

The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead by David Shields.

Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

Somewhere Towards The End by Diana Athill

And in what looks like the most depressingly devastating book I could ever imagine, David Rieff’s memoir of assisting his mother Susan Sontag during her third and ultimately fatal bout of cancer, Swimming In A Sea Of Death.

Writers, I believe, may be the very few individuals who can provide some kind of solace, no matter how illusory, and some kind of illumination, no matter how dulled by despair, when it comes to dealing with death. I remember a couple weeks ago when a woman came in the store asking me if I could recommend a book to give to her brother, a terminally-ill man who had maybe two weeks left to live. At the time I couldn’t possibly think of anything that might suffice to provide  spiritual or philosophical nourishment for someone with so little time left. I thought of the Stoics, the Buddhists, maybe Schopenhauer? She didn’t seem impressed by any of them so she politely thanked me and left the store. But I was impressed by the fact that he had instructed her to find him a book in the first place.

Now, in hindsight, I thought of a book I might have recommended, which is my own personal favorite meditation on mortality: For The Time Being by Annie Dillard. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

What are your favorite books about mortality, death, the fleeting, beautiful ridiculousness of life?

Michael Berger is a barely-published writer and book-seller living in San Francisco. He is one of the founding Corsairs of the Iron Garters Bike Club and is currently pursuing a degree in applied pataphysics. He sometimes eats oatmeal for dinner. More from this author →