The Syllabus No. 1
What to read when you realize you will someday die.
Once, a friend asked if I was afraid of death.
“I’m terrified,” I said. I was thirty-five, a new mom. “If anything happened to my son…”
“No,” she said, “I’m asking if you’re afraid to die.”
Oh, I thought. No? Not really. It was so far away.
Then last year, death inched closer. Death, so we worked from home. Death, so our toddler was home, too, spinning in indolent circles, afraid to go outside. One day we drove up the Parkway, just to be out, and saw a cemetery dotted with fresh dirt: new graves, hastily dug.
That night, every night last year, I read. Greedily, needily, hopscotching across my shelves, vacationing from fear. I used an app to catalog what I wanted to read, and to search for new books to want to read. The list swelled, ate hours of my listless days.
It reached 21,478 titles.
I did the math: I was thirty-eight. If I lived to, say, eighty-five, to finish the list I’d need to read one-and-a-quarter books a day, every day, and never add a single new volume. Which is to say that I won’t even come close. There aren’t enough years left. Staring at the figure on the calculator, I understood my friend’s question. My life is full and joyous—and ending. A wide swath is already gone. The hubris of my youth, my indifference to time, seemed suddenly like the worst kind of ingratitude.
A stunned few weeks passed. I clasped my child hard. I stared, I drank. I didn’t arrive at a canned carpe diem epiphany. I didn’t quit my job or drain my 401k.
Instead, I read. Not to finish the list. Just to read. I ate excellent food. I laughed. I wasted time; I did a lot of nothing. I wrote. I walked. I thought up this newsletter. I sat on our backyard swing with my son, swinging, watching his eyelashes dip and rise as his gaze held the horizon. What I mean is that I lived—not to embody some momentous ethos about life, but because life was the thing suddenly in shorter supply. There is no other answer, and no other need.
If you too have grasped your mortality, I salute you as a fellow traveler on the strange road ahead. And I hope these works ease and aid the journey.
How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
Author: Sarah Bakewell
Book; Biography/Philosophy (2011)
Father of the personal essay, the sixteenth century’s most readable writer, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was a French nobleman who, after losing his best friend, father, brother, and all but one of his newborn children, retreated to his chateau to grapple with the big questions. The result, The Essays, is Montaigne’s meandering conversation with himself and the great philosophers. Studded with startling insights, it’s a wondrous, essential read. But I chose Bakewell’s book because of its distillation of Montaigne’s own brush with death and how it changed him. (And also because it’s wise, fleet of foot, and Montaigne-besotted—contagiously so.) While Montaigne was out riding with his employees one day, a fellow horseman misgauged the width of the path and knocked he and his horse to the ground, rendering Montaigne unconscious and badly injured. When he awoke, his awareness was split in two. The outward him keened in pain and disorientation, vomiting blood as he was carried home. The inner him, strangely serene, watched this unfold as if from a great remove. He wrote, “It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips…I took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go.” When he came to, Montaigne was revived to his very soul. He had seen that death was easy, natural, a fearless fading. For the rest of his life, he was lighter, unburdened of the existential horror that had plagued him after all that loss. He wrote, “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.” What comfort there is in that.
Author: Christine Montross
Book; Memoir (2008)
Montross writes about her time in the med school anatomy lab with sensitivity and candor, in a kind of dialogue with “Eve,” the cadaver with whom she spends a semester. Prior to her medical career, Montross was a poet, and her easy, delicate language perfumes the text. In an early chapter, she pulls a few arm bones from a box. The sight of them has no particular hold on her; they’re just bones. Then Montross assembles them into an arm’s shape, articulates the joints—and is overcome with vertiginous recognition. That is a human arm. Hers is a strange and bracing memoir, one that thins the membrane between living and dead, and thrums with a tacit reminder best summarized by that oft-used epitaph: “As you are now, so once was I.”
Author: Barbara Holland
Book; Essays (1995)
The first line of this unapologetic, witty, pleasantly surly book reads, “Subtly, in little ways, joy has been leaking out of our lives.” America’s indelible Puritanism, Holland believes, is murdering our nicest naughty amusements: “Cigarettes,” “Bare Feet,” “Buying Things,” and many others. Holland’s prose is as delicious as the vices she eulogizes. On naps: “Let us consider the cat and go to bed. Bed the haven, the motherly lap, the downy nest. Bed, from which Earth with its fuss and fidgeting shrinks to the size of Pluto, visible only by telescope.” On the removal of shoes: “I read an interview with a very old and famous woman who was asked what she’d do differently in life if she had it to do over. After some thought, she replied that she’d start going barefoot earlier in the season.” The message is clear. To deny yourself pleasure is to fail to grasp the vanishingly brief length of your life—an error both tragic and irreversible.
Author: Barbara Ras
At once strange and familiar, blunt and obfuscating, soft and stern, the poem purports, in its title, to echo the common lament that life can’t hold everything we wish it could. But then its steady, matter-of-fact lines rebut this assertion by name-checking the myriad wonders life does contain: periwinkles, buses that kneel, “towels sucking up the drops on your clean skin,” clouds and letters, “Indian food with yellow sauce like sunrise.” So, no, you can’t have it all, if having it all means having infinite years. And yet—well, I’ll let Ras deliver the good news: “You can’t have it all, but there is this.”
Extra Credit: The rest of the collection in which this poem appears, Bite Every Sorrow, is just as lovely and slippery and tender as this selection.
The Oldest Living Things in the World
Author: Rachel Sussman
Book; Photography (2014)
A ten-thousand-year-old Swedish tree. Antarctic moss that’s hugged coastal rock for 5,500 years. A South African baobab planted when Christ was alive. These are a few of Sussman’s aged subjects, her photographs of which possess an unassuming splendor: to glance at these specimens, you’d never know they’ve outlived whole civilizations. Yet once you do, the subjects transform, stirring in you the eerie but gratifying knowledge that life, the world, existed long before you arrived and will continue long after you depart. While beholding an 80,000-year-old grove of Quaking Aspen, how much do the petty torments of your existence matter? Time is massive and you are small; look at it just right, and this fact really takes the pressure off. Or, to paraphrase Montaigne, there’s no reason to worry your head about it.