At my bedside there is a stack of books in various stages of read-ness. The Neon Bible, Life of Pi, Musciophilia, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England, Building Construction Illustrated, Mindfulness in Plain English, Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness. And others too. This is not really all that unusual. I’m not a serial reader; that is, I don’t read one book, and then the next, and then the next. I sort of pick up a stack at a time, easing one out of the mix every now and again, and rarely finishing most of them in their entirety. In fact, when my dad died I gave up reading the end of novels. I read until I’m a dozen or twenty pages from the end (when I find a good stopping point), and then I put them down. It was the book that I was reading when my dad was in hospice, and when he died that did it: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want the book to end (I didn’t), but a combination of two things: I knew the book would leave me with a feeling I wasn’t in the mood for, and I had this terrible fear that when I finished it my dad would die. But we know the end of the story — he died anyway. And I still haven’t finished that book. In fact, there is only one novel that I’ve read from cover to cover since July of 2006: Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, which I picked up at a little used bookstore down the road from my brother Jeff’s house where my dad passed just a day or two later. (Yes, it’s true Dawn, I didn’t even read the end of Straight Man — so, I guess you are really under no obligation to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma as per our exchanged reading agreement)

And then there are the stacks of books that I intend to read, or feel obligated to read: The Brothers Karamazov looms large on that list (while at a new year’s eve party a couple of years ago, the guests scoffed when my answer to the traditional question “what one book would you bring with you if you were stranded on a deserted isle?” was The Great Gatsby, and the host thrust his copy of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece into my hands), as well as countless books that were given or loaned to me during my chemotherapy days. One such book, loaned to me by Georgia, Love, Medicine, and Miracles (apparently at the request of the author, Bernie Siegel, with whom Georgia had been corresponding regarding her own book) was sitting out yesterday because while cleaning the bedroom I had decided to return it unread to Georgia. I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by what had become a post-chemo surge of “neccessary” reading. When Dawn noticed the stack, she said, “what are these doing out here?” I told her I was returning them to her mom, and picked up Siegel’s book. I flipped through it and found this passage on my first flip:

“The phenomenology of cancer is full of images of guilt and retribution and promises to oneself and others that, should there be recovery, sacrifices will be made, there will be a change of ways, life will be lived properly. The psychology of such unwilling sacrifice is quite different from that of willing sacrifice.”

The first (okay, maybe second or third) thing I did was look up phenomenology to be sure I understood this sentence: it means, simply, the study of phenomena.

Then I thought about the sentence. I read on a bit, but discovered the remainder of the page did not pull me in the way this sentence did. I thought I could strike all that nonsense about guilt and retribution, keep the promises to oneself bit, and accept in part the notion of sacrifice and change. What really got me was the idea that such change, or hope for positive change is/was unwilling. And why does Siegel use the word sacrifice at the end of the thought, rather than change? Change does not have to mean sacrifice.

So, it got me thinking: are all of the changes I have made in life since being diagnosed with cancer, and all those I am trying to make, somehow unwillingly being accomplished? Driven by guilt and fear of the ultimate retribution? What is unwilling sacrifice anyway? If it is unwilling it isn’t sacrifice, it’s something else — my American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “Forfeiture of something highly valued for the sake of one considered to have a greater value or claim” — and it doesn’t work. An alcoholic can not give up booze unwillingly anymore than I could change my diet unwillingly.

So, Siegel lost me as a potential reader, I think, and the book will return to Georgia this weekend. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge an entire book on the first sentence one reads of it, but hey, there are millions of books out there to be read, and I feel as though I’ve got half of them sitting near my bed.

But he did get me thinking, and that’s more than some books read in their entirety accomplish. Maybe I owe him a thank you for that — or a review on amazon that begins, “I have only read one sentence of this book, but…”


5 Responses to “will”

  1. Stephanie Jutt Says:

    Dear Mike,
    Thank you for this most recent entry. I feel sometimes like on the moon by myself, until I have the great good fortune to meet kindred souls like yourself and Dawn. Then I know I’m not alone, and it helps me so much. I too have a huge stack of books by my bedside, and unlike you, I can ONLY read the ending first. That’s the only way I can relax into the story itself. I also loved Brothers Karamazov and will probably read it again. The other great Russian novel I think is THE IDIOT. I don’t know who is greater, and of course that’s not the point, with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, but they are both incredible. Tell me if you read Musicophilia – now I want to read Portnoy’s Complaint, somehow I missed that one so far!
    Thanks for meeting me for pizza and food the other day, and let’s do it again soon. I am so happy to see you together, you are just made for each other – xoxoxoxox stephanie

  2. It makes me kind of sad that you’re missing the endings. I mean, it would be like leaving a movie or a play early. I can’t imagine.

  3. Yeah! Glad to see you posting again. I haven’t visited in a while and swung by your blog today to see how you are.

    So many books…..so little time!!!!! I totally agree.

    I’ve started another blog called Live Lightly, Read Wildly about sustainable practices in libraries. A spin off……..

    Um, yep. The Health Care industry pretty much sucks all the way around. I have BC/BS and they are only moderately better. The way hospitals bill too pretty much sucks. I’m still getting bills from the previous two years and I’ve never seen before. It would be funny if it wasn’t so annoying, and unaffordable!

    Channel your pissdom into being an advocate……..sounds like you already are. Good vibes, Shannon

  4. Tara: What can I say? I don’t like endings.

  5. i might get to a few more endings than you mike, but not many. i forced myself to finish a book a month ago, but it wasn’t really the ending that was significant. maybe we place too much significance on the ends of things and not the bits and pieces in the middle or elsewhere.

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