What books should a dying person read?
January 6, 2015 7:25 PM   Subscribe

My father and step-father (both in their seventies) are nearing the end of their lives, and I want to give them books to read in the time they have left. I'm not looking for anything that's necessarily literally on the topic of death, nor anything religious or self-help-ish. I'm looking for books suitable for a person with limited ability to concentrate due to pain/fatigue, that run the gamut from pleasant & not inappropriate, to ones that will provoke reflection and help them come to terms with dying. Please help with your recommendations.

For context: both men are emotionally healthy and have had, I think, satisfying lives. They have had regrets and disappointments (including maybe ones I don't know about), but AFAIK there are no major unresolved issues. It will not be weird or heavy-handed for me to bring them books: we all read a lot, and share books all the time.

For both, their taste in nonfiction leans towards history/biography/anthropology/politics. They read a lot of authors whose names I don't remember, but the ones I do are people like Simon Winchester, Oliver Sacks, Bill Bryson, Marvin Harris, and Jon Krakauer. My stepfather doesn't read much fiction but my father does: he likes Orwell and Hemingway, and loves the Nero Wolfe and Travis Magee books. (He has a thing about smart-ass ladies-men detectives, lol. He is a priest.)

I would love your recommendations. Thanks in advance.
posted by Susan PG to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Vonnegut, "Cat's Cradle" or "Breakfast Of Champions"
posted by thelonius at 7:27 PM on January 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry, maybe I was a bit oblique (and it's a slightly weird situation: they are both dying at the same time). They both have terminal conditions with a prognosis of less than a year.
posted by Susan PG at 7:36 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Cosmos by Carl Sagan.
posted by sexyrobot at 7:53 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche
Love, Medicine & Miracles by Bernie Siegel
posted by hummingbird at 8:00 PM on January 6, 2015

Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future -- organized by Neal Stephenson.

This is a collection of science fiction short stories that are all about countering dystopian views of the future or humanity and is meant to inspire the potential for human works to be long lasting / impactful / sustained by effort over generations or crowds. This is terrible description. But, it is about the "long view" and is largely hopeful or optimistic.
posted by ellerhodes at 8:03 PM on January 6, 2015

Oops, just saw the "nor anything religious or self-help-ish" part. The books I recommended are more focused on spirituality, and maybe still palatable for your family members.
posted by hummingbird at 8:05 PM on January 6, 2015

An anthology of classic poems. (I'm sorry I can't remember the one favored by a family member as a "book on tape" but it included Frost, Houseman, Williams, etc....folks who aren't impenetrable or thousands of pages long, but still speaking deeply to the human experience).
posted by blue suede stockings at 8:05 PM on January 6, 2015

Since you mention Hemingway, does your father like short stories? If so, I'd recommend The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway.
posted by jenh526 at 8:05 PM on January 6, 2015

I don't know if this is a good suggestion for your specific situation, but if it helps any future MeFites in a similar boat, my first husband's mother re-read Milne's Winnie the Pooh during the final months of her life with a terminal condition and as I recall found it very satisfying.
posted by trunk muffins at 8:08 PM on January 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
posted by ageispolis at 8:13 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Do they like audiobooks? I am a voracious reader and have found that when sick, listening to a good audiobook is much less tiring. I listen and re-listen to TH White's The Once and Future King because it's got so much to say about everything, and the Audible version I have is incredibly satisfying. My father very much enjoyed all the Flashman novels and of course the Aubrey-Maturin books are amazing adventure and friendship reads. G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown, V.I. Warshawski, pretty much all of Ruth Rendell are thoughtful detective novels that deal with ethics and death more than puzzling crime.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:18 PM on January 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Maybe a little too on-the-nose, but The Last Lecture?

I would probably read really grand sci-fi, like the Foundation series; something that puts single human lives both in perspective and, when appropriate, on a pedestal, if that makes any sense.
posted by supercres at 8:25 PM on January 6, 2015

The book Sum - forty tales from the afterlives might be a good choice, or horrendous mistake, they excerpted some of it on Radiolab a few years ago - perhaps some episodes of radio lab and This american life would be a good suggestion too.

On a different thread, revenge of the lawn or Tokyo Montana express by Richard Braughtigan are both lovely short story collections.
posted by runrunrun at 8:30 PM on January 6, 2015

Based on your author list, if they haven't read John McPhee then they certainly should. Also, The Snow Leopard and other works by Peter Matthiessen.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:11 PM on January 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

Personally, if I were dying within the next twelve months, the very last thing I would want to read is books about how to come to terms with death.

Perhaps a more constructive approach would be to say "I would like to bring you some (audio)books that will please you. What would you like?"
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:53 PM on January 6, 2015 [16 favorites]

Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
posted by ageispolis at 10:11 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

I got my father the Rumpole mysteries when he had a valve replaced.
posted by brujita at 11:19 PM on January 6, 2015

Best answer: For your father: "A Movable Feast" by Hemingway; the Joe Sixsmith detective novels by Reginald Hill (funny, British, middle-aged, black, ex-lathe operator detective).

For your stepfather: "Astoria: John Jacob Astoria and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire" by Peter Stark (a nailbiter-really!); "1491" and "1493" by Charles Mann (mindblowing).

To "provoke reflection": "The Places That Scare You" by Pema Chodron, "Being Mortal" by Atul Gawande. The latter is about living while aging and dying; I strongly recommend it to you and your family members also. It's a small book, but extremely powerful.

I'd like to say how sorry I am that you're facing this. To be losing two important family members simultaneously is terribly difficult; and the pain when they're gone is hard. Asking this question here, looking for ways to help them in specific ways that they would enjoy, is a wonderful thing to do, and I hope remembering how you've been there for them will help you heal.
posted by kestralwing at 12:19 AM on January 7, 2015 [8 favorites]

Heh, I was gonna recommend Vonnegut as well -- pretty much anything by him. There's no bad time to read Kurt Vonnegut!
posted by Drexen at 2:47 AM on January 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Any of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. They've now published more than 250. Inspirational true stories about ordinary people. Short passages.

Studs Terkel "Working" or any of his books.
posted by vitabellosi at 7:26 AM on January 7, 2015

Seconding Johnny Wallflower's recommendation for John McPhee, and I will say specifically A Sense of Where You Are and Levels of the Game are terrific, especially if they like sports. (I don't particularly care about sports, and I found both of these riveting.)

Also, I heartily recommend Calvin and Hobbes collections. In my experience, people of all ages love them, including (maybe especially) older gentlemen, and they're great for times when you're fatigued.
posted by kristi at 10:07 PM on January 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: OMG you people, thank you! I have already given my dad McPhee and Sagan and Vonnegut and he is happily reading all three. (Plus some Doris Lessing and Vicki Hearne, which I had forgotten about but your answers prompted me to remember.) I will be giving him and my stepfather more :)

But the standout most unbelievably apt recommendation is the Gawande book, which I wholeheartedly endorse for anyone. I bought it an hour after kestralwing made the suggestion and read it that night. It's interesting even if you're not nearing these kind of decisions --typical Gawande: smart and informative and wise--, and invaluable if you are. We (my father, stepfather and I) are all Gawande fans, but didn't know this book was out. Kestralwing seriously, from the bottom of my heart, thank you. It's so, so valuable for us right now :)
posted by Susan PG at 3:49 PM on January 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

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