Death and Pencils (vastly preferable to taxes)

I love the London Review of Books. It’s always got great essays and the reviews which run to thousands of words are often more like digests, so often I get so much from them I have little desire to read the book. This is good for my TBR pile, whereas you book bloggers out there with your teasing reviews generally do the opposite *shakes fist*

However, the most recent edition forced me to order and immediately read ‘When breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi, a book about his own death. An English literature, history of medicine, human biology and medical graduate, and neurosurgeon (I may have missed some off, the man liked to study, and I for one love the idea of that much university attendance, although less enthusiastic about the loans) who when diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 37, wrote clearly and beautifully about his own journey to the end.

Virginia Woolf wondered why more people didn’t write about illness –

“Consider how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed…when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature”

I don’t know if it’s that strange. The ill themselves are often in no state to write, or clearly communicate their experience. It’s a hard subject to research, although possible for a writer like Virginia who was ill and recovered (before being ill again, and not recovering.)


And do the healthy want to read about illness? People are often interested in the mechanics of illness but have little patience for a person who wishes to describe just how much their cold feels like death.

And do the recovered want to dwell? There are lots of cancer diaries out there, which could well be great therapy to those in the same position, but for the rest of us it can be too uncomfortable to look at. And how some popular magazines treat the subject doesn’t help, with sensational headlines along the lines of Dad killed my dog while I was in surgery and Husband cheated during my chemo just infect illness with crass, sensational drama.

Kalinithi’s book is made bearable by its depth and bravery, and as a doctor is logical, it’s not overly sentimental. One element of death and loss is that we often feel we are the only ones it’s happening to, even when we know that’s not true, it’s hard to absorb. Kalanithi has watched a lot of people die, the knowledge gives him a distance and clarity about his own situation that makes the book readable, but still incredibly human.

The reality of the frailty of our bodies is not lost on me. Working with death and seeing how people treat themselves often makes me wonder how they managed to live as long as they did. But although I am reminded everyday that I will die, the reality of it only lands on me at night. Our dreams often feature our families and workplaces, Jeanie from reception trying to sell us a haddock while a parrot steals our purse and Anne Boleyn wants a signature for a paper towel delivery, and so death and dying pops up a lot in mine (in a dream a corpse once asked me where the nearest bus stop was, and I was absolutely not afraid. i suspect in real life there’s be more screaming). It’s after these vivid dreams, in a silent house, when the analysing, distracted part of my brain is still asleep, that I feel the certainty I will die. I know and think it in daylight hours, but post-dream, I feel it as clearly an undeniably and inflexibly as a full bladder. And then I make the effort to go distract my thoughts as quickly as possible, as that clarity is not a comfortable place to visit. But inevitably, it’s will happen again, death and bladders will not tolerate permanent shelving.

Kalanithi’s book is not depressing, but it is moving, and unforgettable. To quote Sherwin Nuland ‘Our mortality confers meaning’, it makes the book so much more poignant knowing the writer died, and these are his last words on the subject. Being aware of my mortality, in a way, also makes me feel better, and as if I will live better if I keep death in the corner of my eye.

And finally, the Palamino Blackwing Sarah sent me some time ago was worn down to a nub, and buying a new box was the right (and life affirming) thing to do. They are a bit of a luxury at twenty-five quid a box, which is only around £2 per pencil, but still seems a lot to spend on pencils in one pop. And I also got this lovely goldfish notebook from The Journal Shop. Life is too short for poor-quality stationery, and good things start with pens, pencils and paper.