Death be not Proud

For me, used book sales usually net a few gems, one or two what-was-I-thinking’s, and an occasional classic. Browsing through the used books section (open twice a year at the local library) is nearly always a lesson in social study.

This time, I selected the 1949 classic Death be not Proud, the story of John Gunther, Jr. who dies as a result of a brain tumor despite marked attempts to prolong his young life. Today, Amazon lists the memoir, penned by Gunther’s father as the #1 Bestseller under the category of “brain cancer,” with 4.3 out of 5 stars.

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Several copies waited on the shelf at the used book sale for new owners, but I chose the hardback version. The inside front cover documents its history with a stamped identification that reads “Property of North Penn Joint High School, Lansdale, PA.” Beneath are the names of students and their respective teachers. This copy, marked in “new” condition in 1968 devolved by 1973 to “good.” Still it’s aged but readable, though for a few days I let it sit open as the pages had absorbed a damp, mustiness that only dry air would cure.

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The author left a personal remembrance of his son’s remarkable journey, recounting the days from diagnosis until death, but he also left a mark on literary history. It brought to light Johnny’s will to live, but moreso his parents’ quest to extend his life for as long as possible always with a glimmer of hope that he might be ultimately saved by a new discovery.The narrative places the emphasis on telling the intricacies of young Johnny and his illness, while the notes, letters, and journal entries included scrapbook the writings for posterity.

I wondered whether the students who possessed this book for a term remembered having read it, whether they appreciated the loss of human potential, or whether it gave them any pause to reflect on their own random good fortune.

I thought long about the English class requirements I had in high school, but I didn’t recall ever having read the book, despite its place in history. Perhaps its time to pick up a classic for yourself.

Challenging Myself to a Duel

Sometimes, it’s unusually difficult for me to read without editing—an occupational hazard I suppose. As a native English speaker, I’ve always been fascinated with other languages so I learned Spanish and French, though I never considered myself fluent in either. The study of language reminds me of a duel between two parts of your brain; one that understands and one that attempts to interpret to promote understanding.

After six years of Spanish classes beginning in junior high school, and two additional years in college, I understand the gist of conversation when I hear it. In fact, by the time I graduated from high school, I often thought in Spanish. Unfortunately, I rarely have occasion to speak it now and content myself to say, “Hola,” “Adios,” or “Buenos días” whenever I’m bored with English. Truth be told: I struggle to speak Spanish because its not practiced.

Only having studied French for two years, I’m less adept with that language, but I watch a fair amount of foreign films and I like to try to figure out what’s being said without the English subtitles. I’d consider myself decent at it, although it helps that I’m not under pressure of having to respond to it verbally.

No spoilers please.

No spoilers please.

Recently, while browsing the local bookstore, I noticed a section of Spanish novels. I began thinking that it might be an interesting challenge to read one to see whether I’d fully understand it. So I looked through the section for an interesting title.

I’ll be honest. The picture on the cover of Las Valkarias by Paulo Coelho caught my eye (no pun intended.) According to its synopsis, this bestseller has been translated into many languages and sold around the world. I have never read it in English or otherwise.

I decided it might be fun to read it in Spanish and then pick up an English copy afterward to see whether I interpreted it correctly. Plus, I’ll have the added bonus of being preoccupied with understanding so as to avoid the invariable editing that goes on in my head every time I read.

I’ll re-post when I’m done to share my experience.

Have you ever tried to read a book in a language that is not your native one?

Who has Time to Read?

Writing well requires reading. It gets the synapses firing. To some degree it’s not even important what you read; fiction, advice, spiritual pursuits—whatever, but I do suggest that you take a break from the screen and go old school. Turn to the paper page.

Read something that forces you to focus on what another writer has to say about a topic that you are either fascinated by, or that you know nothing about.

Who has time to read?

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that you do, and much more than you thought possible.

Try an experiment. Look around for anything you have already set aside with the intention of reading. Chances are, you have books, magazines, or other reading materials squirreled away that would be perfect for this exercise. Take five minutes right now and gather them.

Go ahead.

I’ll wait until you come back.

Still here.

Um…you need to get up.

No really, I mean it. Right now.

Tick.Tick.Tick.

I’m still here.

Got them?

Pick a highly visible spot to keep all that you have gathered. Choose only one item and immediately stash it in your purse, backpack, or briefcase.

I can rather easily guarantee that within the following 24 hours, at least once, you will find yourself with several consecutive minutes, perhaps as much as a half hour of idle time. Instead of checking your phone for emails or texts first, pull out that reading and begin. Stop only when it is (a) completed or (b) when it is no longer safe or acceptable to continue. (No walking into traffic or marble support columns please.)

You’ll probably discover that you have a shocking amount of idle time that you didn’t realize existed; particularly time spent waiting in lines, in waiting rooms, or for the arrival of other people. You may even notice that you finish reading and still have time on your hands.

When you have completed one reading, consider whether it’s worth talking about. What you read may be of interest to a colleague or friend, or something you want to learn more about. In any case, keep that reading pile highly visible, continually adding new items and taking one with you everywhere you go.

Reading deliberately keeps your mind active, literally providing you food for thought. The more you are thinking, the more you’ll have to write about.

In what ways does reading help to inspire your writing?