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.
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.
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.