Like most normal people, I like to spend the run-up to the festive season thinking about death. I find it goes particularly well with overeating, tinsel, and so little daylight that you no longer know you have eyebrows.
So it occurred to me recently that when that time comes when book lovers pass away, we could well wonder what it was they were reading before they died. What might become the last book you’ll ever read?
Of course, the answer to this question might tell you absolutely nothing at all. But then again, the human race has been preoccupied for centuries about a person’s last words. What they said, and to whom. What it says about their state of mind; what it says about death and dying, and what’s it all really about anyway.
I’m as interested as the next cynic in what someone’s last words were, but I’m never sure what to believe, because I sincerely doubt we ever hear the truth of them.
The Last Word in Last Words
In many cases, we only get to hear about the last interesting thing someone said, rather than the last words they actually uttered. Perhaps we simply hear about the last thing they said to someone in particular, ignoring anything they said after that to anyone else. But whatever we hear, it carries such huge weight that it’s almost always a story worth telling.
Most of us would like to think that our last words would be something lofty, philosophical or important. For example, saying to a loved one: ‘everything will be all right’. Perhaps it would be ‘I love you’, or a shocking deathbed confession, such as ‘I never liked the bathroom tiles’.
All in all we’d like to believe that our last words might be something crucial to the happiness of one’s family, community, or even civilisation. In fiction, it would always be so.
The reality is that most people’s last words are something far more mundane. I reckon the most uttered last words for a very large majority are something along the lines of ‘thank you’ (to the nurse administering the last food, drink or medication). Or something which becomes ironic, such as: ‘I’m fine’, or for 87% Irish people, ‘I’m grand, thanks’.
It’s extremely unlikely our last words will be truly brilliant, such as the ones Spike Milligan pre-ordered for his gravestone – ‘I told you I was ill’.
The Ideal Reader’s Legacy…
I feel like the last books we read before we die are even better than last words. Books are more concrete and witnessable. They’re something which can be readily believed, because people are less likely to embellish the truth about them. Most importantly, they might even tell us something of what was in someone’s head before they left us.
In death as in life, when it comes to books, there are ones which can make us look impressive and intellectual. And then there are also books for which the Kindle was invented, so we wouldn’t have to hide their covers in shame on public transport, let alone have them discovered after we’re gone.
We all have books we quite like to be seen reading, and books we’d rather not admit to. Not too many of us would be happy passing away with a social media star’s lifestyle bible on the bedside table, for instance. Nothing could make life appear shorter and more meaningless than that.
But having War and Peace or Ulysses on the nightstand could create meaning and tragedy and comedy all at once: to have died without finishing some of the most famously unfinishable works in modern memory would be one of the greatest literary fiction metaphors of all time.
Or imagine you’re an author, and you hear that a famous person’s last read was your book! It could be a validation of everything you’ve ever done. It could also be a shock, but given that there’s very little left in life that truly surprises us after recent years, you’d also have to consider that a bonus, not to mention a priceless marketing opportunity.
…and the Reality
The most interesting last reads, however, could actually be stranger than fiction.
By far the most ironic, interesting and unbelievable last read I ever encountered was my own Dad’s. He was one of the most prolific readers I knew when he was alive. And when he died, the half-finished book at his bedside was Dead Tomorrow by Peter James.
I know this sounds made up, but it isn’t. I still sometimes look at that book on the shelf now, its spine to this day creased and lined to just under mid-way through, the right hand side of the spine as pristine and smooth as the moment it left the bookshop. And being the deep and insightful philosopher I am, I think to myself: there’s a blog post in that.