(Roxanne's Note: Two treats in reading this pair of essays. First, having had the pleasure to meet both authors, their choices were unexpected. I was so taken with both contributions that I promptly read the book they suggested.
The Denial of Death has profoundly changed my thinking, and I imagine I will read it again and again.
It reinforced for me the notion Italo Calvino expresses in a line I cite at the end of The Book that Changed My Life (introducing the books on my own list): "The Classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual's or the collective unconscious."
The Denial of Death will most assuredly hide in the layers of my memory and be part of my unconscious ? guiding how I live and think. Not bad from one little book.)
The Denial of Death
by Ernest Becker
During a series of insomniac nights as a college sophomore, I pondered what it meant to be dead. The idea of not existing, and worse, not existing forever, was terrifying in ways daytime thoughts never can be. Would it be silent? Cold? Lonely? It seemed too much for the mind to grasp. I got to wondering how people walked around every day with equanimity when such a gargantuan and terrible and inescapable fate awaited. A few days later, I happened across a paperback in the University of Wisconsin bookstore. Its title, The Denial of Death, grabbed me immediately. I plopped down on an old black leather chair and started reading. By the time I got up, I viewed the world differently. By the time I got up, I was a different person.
The book, written by cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, is a brilliantly conceived and beautifully written synthesis of the thinking of Freud, Otto Rank, Kierkegaard, and other giant minds. It addresses what Becker thinks to be the basis for much of human culture, behavior, and character: man's refusal to acknowledge his own mortality. The reality of our fate, Becker argues, is too much for the human animal to bear; much of the world around us, from art to war to love to hate, from the forming of individual personalities to the construction of civilizations, arises from our desperate and usually unconscious efforts to deny our impermanence, to run from our animal doom.
I read The Denial of Death three times that year, and have read it many more times since. In it, I find answers to nearly every question I can think to ask about being human and about being in the world. In it, I find explanation for why men do what they do. It may sound odd to suggest that there is comfort to be found in a book about knowing our own mortality, but that is the beauty of Becker, and his gift is to show us that it is the beauty of ourselves.
After earning a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin and a law degree from Harvard, Robert Kurson left a career in real estate law to pursue writing. He was hired by the Chicago Sun-Times as a data-entry clerk, a job that led to a full-time position as a features writer. From the Sun-Times he moved to Chicago magazine, and then to Esquire, where he is a contributing editor. He is the author of Shadow Divers, and his award-winning stories have appeared in Rolling Stone, the New York Times Magazine, and other publications. He lives in the Chicago suburbs and can be reached via the Internet at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Denial of Death
by Ernest Becker
When a friend sticks a book in my hand and crows, "It changed my life," my heart plummets. They never say, "It changed my life." They sing it out, as if boasting about intellectual suppleness, while not talking about the book at all. As if change were easy, welcome. I know better. Sure, the Renaissance was change, but so was the Ice Age.
Plus, I'm not intellectually supple. When one of those books does come along, it knocks me over. I'll read it twice. If I can possibly get a recording of the book, I'll do so. I'll run with it in my iPod, wash the dishes with it. I'll dog-ear and underline my copy. I'll quote endlessly from the text in email. I'll bore my neighbors, embarrass my friends, infuriate my family.
Sometimes it's a novel, sometimes a book of poetry. This year Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death has got me by the throat. Blackstone offers an excellent recording. "This book is a bid for the peace of my scholarly soul," Becker says in the preface.
He writes like Muhammad Ali used to boast, with a wild abandon that at first alienates and ultimately charms.
What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms. This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression ? and with all this yet to die.
Published in 1973, Becker's book is still a revelation in my little world. I particularly cherish his brilliant exposition ? credited to Kierkegaard ? on the vanity of sorrow. What a view! I'd never seen the world that way. This book changed my life. Argghh!!
Benjamin Cheever's most recent book of nonfiction, Selling Ben Cheever, was excerpted in the New Yorker, Gourmet, and the New York Times Book Review. His last novel, The Good Nanny, was selected as a New and Notable book by the New York Times Book Review. He was a reporter for a daily newspaper for six years and an editor at Reader's Digest for eleven, and has taught at Bennington College and the New School for Social Research. He's now writing Strides, a book about running, to be published by Rodale.