• Deathbed Reading: What Book Would You Choose?

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 42 comments

    books-1670670_960_720Last week we had a great conversation about the benefits of maintaining a reading list. Today we want to get all morbid and discuss your final entry on that list. That’s right, folks: It’s time to talk about deathbed reading!

    In 2003, a Milwaukee man named David Schwartz was diagnosed with lung cancer. A nonsmoker, Schwartz’s prognosis was grim and he began preparing for the worst.

    Given that books played such a prominent role in his life — Schwartz was a lifelong literature fiend and owned a popular chain of bookstores (at which I used to shop) in the Milwaukee area — part of this preparation involved choosing what book would be his last.

    I remember the coverage of this in the local paper and imagining how I would select my deathbed reading. Outside of the perhaps simpler questions — fiction or non, classic or contemporary, etc. — I think I would ask myself the following:

    1. Do I want a challenge or do I want an easy escape?

    2. A comfortable friend or a book I’ve never read?

    3. How, if at all, would I read this book differently, knowing it would be my deathbed reading experience? And would that play a role in my selection?

    Your turn #1: What questions would you ask yourself to help determine your deathbed book? Let us know in the comments below.


    “A Good Book to Die With”

    David Schwartz opted for challenging but (sort of) familiar, a book that asks the big questions and is so heavy — figuratively, sure, but also literally — that, until he found a four-volume octavo edition, he was afraid he’d be too weak to even hold it.

    “For three and a half months, the ailing Schwartz went mano a mano with Leo Tolstoy,” wrote Jim Higgins in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

    He chose War and Peace.

    The 65-year-old Schwartz had read the Russian epic as a young man and had always wanted to return to it: “I saw the actual amount of words and pages,” Schwartz said, “and I thought, ‘Well, this would be a good book to die with.’”


    What Book Would You Die With?

    So, I now pose the question to you: On your deathbed, what book would you read, and — don’t be lazy! — why?

    Interpret it however you’d like. If a longer book equals a longer life, In Search of Lost Time is a good candidate. (Don’t fall for the Neverending Story trap. That shit ends.)

    Many of you will choose a sacred text from whatever religion you practice. Don’t forget to tell us why.

    Maybe you’d want to reread a book you wrote, just to spend time with that which you’re leaving behind.

    Or maybe you’ll choose to not read at all. Don’t be shy about saying so.

    Your turn #2: Whatever your answer, I’m curious to hear it. Share with us in the comments below or drop me a line.


    If You Know Me at All…

    … my deathbed reading won’t be difficult to guess. First three people to email me with the correct title win free books. (Not necessarily deathbed books; don’t panic.)

    For those of you who have no idea who the hell I am but want a fighting chance, here it is in cryptogram form:

    DFIAAJ [space] EGHKBCA

    Now that I’ve typed it out, I see that it’s a tough one, with only one repeating letter. Here are some more clues: Four vowels, all used only once; Boston; Bart Simpson = not a fan.

    Your turn #3: What would you write on your deathbed?


    “Bookseller Sought to Feed the Soul”

    David Schwartz didn’t die with War and Peace, FYI. He finished that book, again, and then (presumably) a lot more books after it.

    For a time, he found success with chemotherapy and other treatments. He went back to working part time at his bookstores, and even did some world traveling. He lived for nearly six more years after his diagnosis.

    I don’t know what was the final book he read. I hope he enjoyed it.



    David LinkedFULLWriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and contributes to the Dallas Morning News, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2016 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coaching, private instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”


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    Bonnie West

    LOVE this. My mother’s last book was a true crime book. She was a book-a-week non-fiction reader..but never true crime… but in the hospital and decided William Swanson’s Dial M: the Murder of Carol Swanson would keep her riveted as it was the story of a local come. As for me I’m nervous about deciding. I would hate reading a book I didn’t like on my death bed. Better not read.. Think I’ll watch a baseball game! And as for the writing I just finished writing the story I would write on my deathbed. (Now I must watch for falling… Read more »


    That nervousness is why I’d have to choose a comfortable
    book. Like, what if you choose War and Peace but then you hate it
    from the moment you start? I don’t want to read something
    torturous on my deathbed, which I assume is already an
    unpleasant enough setting. I’d say, just choose one of your
    favorite books. And make it a long one!

    Bonnie West

    Ok. thought about it David… I’ll read my OWN book Boyfriends that finally came out this year..with stories in it you not only read but gave a pointer or two! hahahah. how’s that for hubris? But what the heck.I’ll be dying.

    Glynis Jolly

    I would read another one of Leo Tolstoy’s, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It was one of the required books in high school for me. I remember marveling on how Tolstoy portrayed death from the point of view of the one dying.


    I would want an easy escape AND a comfortable friend.
    So give me DeMille’s Charm School, which is a super riveting,
    spy story (easy) but is a book I’ve read a few times and enjoy
    quite a lot (comfortable). In fact it was one of my grandmother’s
    Favorite books, so if I have kids by the time I’m on my deathbed
    I’ll pass that book down. It’s not a great literature classic, but I don’t

    Love this post and topic.

    Mark H.

    I once had a collected works of Shakespeare that was about 1800 pages long. That book is my answer. And iut has a great blend of some of these things. Some of the plays and poems are ones I’ve read several times, so, comfort. Some of them I’ve never read. New. Easy escape in that they take me to other times and places, many of them exotic. But challenging in that understanding the era’s use of language isn’t simple, and understanding Shakespeare’s intent isn’t simple. And if length matters, well, there you go. This is a neat piece. What got… Read more »


    If I had one book to read before I died I’d read BEAUTIFUL RUINS again… for the fourth time!
    I love everything about it – its’ story , it’s wit, it’s syntax, it’s emotion, its insights, its perceptions of the movie industry and human nature, it’s humor, and it’s surprises… by far one of the best books I have ever read.
    Why not go out of this world in awe and memories of a good book?

    Bonnie West

    wow. what a recommendation. I will go and get that book today!!!


    On my deathbed, I would read Shakespeare’s King Lear again. I annually read it anyway, sometime during the winter months, and finding transcendence on multiple plains, as the cold wind blows and the rain pelts Lear in the face, just seems fitting. “Blow winds and crack your cheeks!” As for what I would write on my deathbed, I’d say memoir. I’ve always admired Ulysses S. Grant’s example in this regard. In the 1885, he found himself broke–think on that, a former President bankrupt–so he wrote his memoir of the Civil War, which he finished just days before his death. The… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz

    Your email caught my eye because my father’s name was David Schwartz. That’s neither here nor there. Without the threat of imminent death, I lean towards historical fiction and nonfiction ancient history texts, with a leavening of Harry Potter and such. Dying can be a time for regretting all the things you’ve done, or all the things you haven’t done. Given who I am, it would be easy for me to go that way; but I don’t want my last thought to be “will anybody come to my funeral?” I’ll need some some diversions. I think I would go for… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz

    I’m not sure which book I’d choose as “the one.” I’d probably ask my brother to get me something new, because he also likes that kind of fiction. Those I listed are from the distant past, not because my tastes have changed but because the way I prioritize my time has changed. I think most of the authors I knew are long dead. Some people will read a book over and over, but I don’t usually like to read a book more than once. Piers Anthony is one of many authors who write both serious and light stuff and bemoan… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz

    Sadly, I have gotten lost. I used to listen to music and read for hours a week, but I gradually stopped doing either. I can’t pin down exactly why, and I keep trying to get back on track; but there always seems to be something else that needs doing.


    Would news of my imminent demise paralyze or galvanize me? I think the latter fits. To feed my soul, I would write! I’d start off with handwritten letters to my children, telling them what a privilege it has been for me to have them in my life. I would write letters to friends for the same reason, and to ask for and grant old forgivenesses for stuff no one remembers anyway, because I hate things left unsaid. That’s probably why I write. I would go somewhere I always wanted to go, feel the sun on my face, and just BE… Read more »


    The book was Johnny Lion’s Book, by Edith and Clement Hurd. It’s about a little lion who reads his first book and finds adventure and self-discovery between the pages. He begins a love of reading. Fitting, huh? I remember having to sound out the word “really” but I got everything else right. A pivotal moment. The feeling was akin to getting a driver’s license eleven years later. I grew wings. Anything was possible. I wasn’t a baby anymore. I COULD READ! I asked my son, and he said what he’d like to read on his deathbed is a letter of… Read more »

    Dana Frank

    Hi, David. This post gives me a moment to remember how much I loved “The Known World,” by Edward P. Jones. If my recollection is correct, when I finished reading it, I closed the pages and said, “This book is perfect.” So I think I’ll not wait for my deathbed to reread it. Thank you for the post.


    Since I’ll probably die without becoming a (or THE) great American novelist, on my death bed I’d read the Great American Novel and one of my favorites anyway, The Great Gatsby. A classic and a comfortable friend. And I know I would cry as I read the last few lines, and sob when I get to “So we beat on…” I ALMOST already do that anyway ….

    Tom Whittier

    Gatsby is mine too. It’s among my favorite books from my favorite era in literature. The Sun Also Rises would be difficult to discard (in fact, I think I like it more than GG), but in the end, Gatsby seems more like a deathbed book. Not that SAR isn’t an appropriate deathbed choice. Plenty of fatalism. Just… not quite as much.


    Barbara Mealer

    What would I read on my death bed? Anything that catches my interest and would take me somewhere else other than where I am at the time. I want to laugh and cry and be one of the characters in the book. I’ve been reading since I was 4 years old and have no intention of stopping. I’ve traveled to worlds and places most only dream of going through the books I’ve read. Having retired, I decided to see some of the places I’ve read about along with some places I want to take my characters in the books I’ve… Read more »

    Jose Skinner

    The last book my dad read on his deathbed was Shakespeare’s “Tempest.” I thought this very appropriate.


    Oh the Places You’ll Go, hands-down….

    It’s simple, yes. But so meaningful, especially for the journey to come.


    Humor, depth, hope, young-at-heart, uncomplicated…love it.

    Justine Duhr

    For me, it’s a short story collection… one I compile myself… consisting of all my favorite stories by all my favorite writers. Is that cheating?

    But maybe my perfect collection exists out there somewhere. “Best American Short Stories of the Century” edited by John Updike comes pretty darn close.

    Justine Duhr

    How kind of you, David, and how deliciously morbid!

    […] week we had a wonderful, and wonderfully morbid, discussion about what book you would read on your deathbed.The answers were deliciously wide-ranging, from childhood favorites to various Shakespeare […]

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