Sunday, February 14, 2016

themes of mortality

Evergreen pioneer cemetery in Manchester, CA
There seems to have been a steady flow of profound books touching on a theme of mortality in recent years; from my own reading I'm thinking of: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, and just lately, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.  The first is fiction, about an old preacher nearing death and writing a long letter to his young son.  He wants to explain to the boy before he dies his views on life, and God, and how he came to marry the boy's much younger mother.  The second book is really creative non-fiction, being the selected experiences of a practicing physician, which serve to illustrate the attitudes of patients, and their families facing serious health issues: perhaps hopeful, or unrealistic, sometimes angry, often frightened, and how little time is frequently left, regardless of attitude.  The third book is by a doctor over the course of his internship as a neurosurgeon, covering similar ground to that in Being Mortal, but which takes a dramatic twist when the 38 years old neurosurgeon is discovered to have major lung cancer.  Now it is he chronicling his own stunned responses to the increasingly dim prospects, as he tries to carry on with his marriage and his work.  He didn't quite finish the book in his last year; his wife had to write the last chapter for him.  A good read.

When one reflects on past reading, much of literature deals in some degree with mortality, either as a major theme or as a hidden or secondary theme.  The failing marriage, for example, may be the major theme, but it may be an expression of the midlife crisis, or lack of success in a career "growing long in the tooth," both tensions being heightened by fears of impending mortality.

As the demographics of the country trend toward an aging population, the interest in reading about how others face issues of mortality, whether in fiction or creative non-fiction, seems likely to grow.

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