Friday Five: Books about the human condition (that might cheer you up?)

This past week I’ve been reading what would normally qualify as depressing books for summer.  But to tell you the truth, by reading about death, dying, loss, and grief, I feel more alive, and more appreciative for everything I have. I didn’t mean to have a morbid, melancholy, or morose week of reading, I just approached my to-read shelf and decided to start knocking off the shorter books on it–who knew most of those would be about death? But all of these are books I can and will re-read because they make me understand things about the human condition that usually we avoid thinking about.

So here you have it: Friday Five–books about the human condition that will make you feel lucky to be alive and want to hug your family, friends, and even pets.

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  1. I started the week by reading Philip Roth’s Everyman.  I’ve read his work before, he’s just a genius.  This short book goes through a man’s life and loves and bookends with his funereal.  What I think is so compelling about this book is that Roth actually allows us a full sense and scope of a man’s life in so few pages.  The catharsis created is stunning when you realize how little he writes and how deeply we feel. As I begin to age and my body begins to betray me (back pain, arthritis, unknown ailments, multiple doctor appointments) this book allowed me to understand this is part of the human condition.  There was also a hilarious reference to Hamlet in regard to an affair the protagonist has when he explains to his wife he broke off his assignation and the young lady cried.  His wife replies: “For 4 whole nights? That’s a lot of crying for a twenty-four-year-old Dane. I don’t think even Hamlet cried that much.” 
  2. I followed up Roth with J.M. Coetzee’s Slow Man.  Let’s face it, following up Roth’s writing is a tough task, so I needed a worthy writer.  Slow Man is also fairly short, and doesn’t exactly show death even though Paul, the protagonist, considers it. Rather, it examines an un-fulfilled life after an accident. We begin with Paul being hit by a car, knocked off his bike, and losing his leg.  He then falls into self-pity and depression.  He avoids his friends and fantasizes about his nurse.  The best part, though, occurs when Elizabeth Costello, a famous author, shows up, and won’t leave him alone.  Having read Coetzee’s previous novel Elizabeth Costello, the narrative became almost a game of trying to figure out how Costello figured in to the storyline. She advises Paul to stop feeling sorry for himself: “Live like a hero. That is what the classics teach us. Be a main character. Otherwise, what is life for?” I find Costello’s advice to him probably my favorite part of the book.  She does not allow him to wallow, but cuts to the chase.  She reminds him: “We would all like to be simpler…particularly as we near the end. But we are complicated creatures, we human beings.” Good advice.

  3. At this point, I realized I was working on a theme for my week’s readings, so I thought I might as well polish off Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking where she writes about the loss of her husband and the almost-loss of her daughter.  In some ways, she also loses a limb–but her husband was more than an appendage.  They worked together, from home, for almost 40 years.  They were partners in the true sense of the word.  This books explores how “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” One minute, people are there, the next, they are not.  Her grieving process is complicated by her daughter’s illness as well as memories popping up in all kinds of familiar and unfamiliar places.  The timeline of the book spans a calendar year, but she flashes back to all kinds of memories of their marriage.  In the end, though, she comes to realize this: “I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.” 
  4. The fourth book for this list I didn’t read this week–I read it in February, but it goes well with these others.  It is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a biography of his time in the Nazi death camps.  I read this because it was mentioned in The Warrior’s Heart (which I was teaching at the time), and because a friend serendipitously mentioned it to me as we both sat in a doctor’s office, discussing ailments.  I’d been having mysterious back pain and had been missing school.  I was feeling depressed and helpless.  This book made me understand better how to cope with the pain and also to stop wallowing in self-pity–it could always be worse. Frankl, a psychiatrist, examines the how we cope with suffering.  He says many things about this, including: “Our greatest freedom is the freedom to choose our attitude,” and more specifically: “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” I find this approach to life particularly meaningful.  I may suffer, but I can choose how I react to the suffering–whether it is physical or emotional. 
  5. Finally, there’s a book that examines the human condition that I’ve read many times (and found myself re-reading snippets of this week–Moby Dick.  Part of the reason I picked it up was a recent reading of Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby Dick, which inspired me (for another review of a Philbrick book, go here for a review of the Essex tragedy). I’ve always loved Moby Dick, and while all but one perish in the story, it is a compelling examination of the human condition–our love for fellow man, our madness and monomania, and our relationship with nature. But beyond that, Melville is a genius. Any man who can write this must be: “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.” And of course, to keep with the theme of life and death, consider this metaphor: “All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.”

This list is not intended to be depressing or dour–indeed it should lift your spirits as you finish one of these books, lift your head from it, and look around at your life, your existence, your place in space and time.  After all, it is only the first day of August, and we have a few weeks of summer to eke out and enjoy our existence and celebrate the human experience.

Posted by Kate, VP Secondary.

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Friday Five: Books about the human condition (that might cheer you up?)

5 thoughts on “Friday Five: Books about the human condition (that might cheer you up?)

  1. Kate,
    Thanks for these recommendations. I’m reading a few books simultaneously right now and even though all are good books in their own right, none of them are “hitting me” right now. I think I need to read something a little more… meaningful. (There’s an more optimistic approach to “depressing”.) I need a character or a story that speaks to me. I’m in need of a little soul searching right now. So I’m eager to check out some of these. I read Coetzee’s Disgrace years ago and really loved it. So maybe I’ll start with his and make my way through this list.
    Cheers!
    Gina

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