The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Turtle: Oliver Sacks and Terry Pratchett on Death and Dying

on Monday, December 7, 2015
This year we lost two of the finest souls in contemporary literature. In many ways they could not have been more different, yet both had profound things to say about the human condition and were enormously important to me in my formative years. I was first introduced to the work of Oliver Sacks when my father's cousin handed me a copy of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat when I was about thirteen, urging me to read it because not only was it a great book but one of the twins from Sacks's study worked as the super in his apartment building. I opened the first page and a literary love affair was born. Whenever I visited New York I tried to find the twin but never had any luck (I did see Liza Minelli in the elevator though). Terry Pratchett, on the other hand, was someone I stumbled upon myself, quite by accident. I was in an airport on a layover and had already finished the book I had brought along for the holiday. I can't remember where said airport was but it was small and shitty and the newsstand had very few book on offer. One was Small Gods by some guy with a white beard and black stetson hat. It was supposedly a comedy, a wicked satire on organised religion. The idea of some clipped Gandalf spinning me a yarn about the way we worship right at the time I was beginning to have my own doubts was too much to resist. I picked it up and laughed the entire way to wherever it was I was headed.

Both Sacks and Pratchett have been constants in my reading life. That's not to say I've read everything they've released, nor that I've loved each work equally. But they have consistently delivered and, between them, made the world a more thoughtful, interesting and enjoyable place. When they died within six months of each other, I felt it as a personal loss. It pained me to think that their wonderfully individual voices had fallen silent. And so it was with some trepidation that I picked up two little books that have just been released - quite possibly their last, though I somehow doubt it (publishers will Tupac the shit out of them) - Gratitude and Shaking Hands With Death. As the titles suggest, the books both deal with the idea of mortality. They are two of my lifetime's greatest minds writing in the face of death. Unlike Christopher Hitchens's Mortality, neither of these works are new or previously unpublished. Gratitude contains four of Sacks's short essays on death - Mercury, My Own Life, My Periodic Table and Sabbath - all of which appeared in The New York Times. Shaking Hands With Death is the text of Pratchett's Richard Dimbley Oration, broadcast on BBC1 back in 2010. So is there any point in buying them? Well, yes and sort of.

Gratitude is a gorgeous little hardcover and the words contained within are as good as any philosophical ponderings on death I've ever encountered. The sharpness of Sacks's scientific mind was equalled only by the enormity of his loving heart. He was a man full of compassion, constantly in awe of the world around him. Facing death seems only to have driven him more. As he says in one piece, "I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective." Each essay in this collection is packed full of magical nuggets that will make you stop and take a breath before continuing on. To have achieved all Sacks did and still be so humble, to face death with such dignity, without regret, with true gratitude, is something to behold. Is there a better sentiment that the one he puts forward in In My Life (and quoted on the back cover of Gratitude)?: "I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure." Or the closing paragraph of the staggeringly beautiful Sabbath: "And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life - achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one's life as well, when one can feel that one's work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest."

Shaking Hands With Death is an altogether different beast. Reading the words feels somewhat artificial - they are clearly meant to be heard, preferably from Pratchett's own mouth. There are, thankfully, moments of classic Pratchett wit and insight. There are even a couple of laughs which, I suppose, is a big ask for a speech on early onset Alzheimer's Disease. Mostly, this little book is an impassioned plea to reconsider the question of dying with dignity and, more importantly, assisting those who wish to do so to die in the most pain-free, humane and respectful way. There is much to like here - Pratchett does a great job of normalising a highly stigmatised illness. By telling his own tale of diagnosis, of learning to cope with the symptoms, of understanding the meaning of what will become of him, he transforms a very medical, cerebral story into an entirely human one. Add to that moments of autobiography, particularly regarding his relationship with his father and the death thereof, and we end up with a perfectly lovely little book. And yet, for some reason, Shaking Hands With Death feels an awful lot more like a cash-grab than Gratitude. For all its warmth it ultimately feels like a submission to government and, as such, something we needn't have read in the form it has been presented. Oddly, its release coincided with a much more important work by Pratchett: his final Discworld novel, The Shepherd's Crown. Might I suggest you pick that up instead and take one last ride on the turtle. There, hiding under the trainee witch Tiffany Aching's hat, you will find the man we all so dearly miss.


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