Katie Roiphe's 6 favorite books that deal with illness and dying
The author recommends works by Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, and more
The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy (Bantam, $7). This fierce, bleak, slim novel contains a remarkable account of how death transforms a dying man and everyone around him. Tolstoy brings his satiric eye, and a surprising generosity, to a subject rarely addressed in literature.
On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf (Paris Press, $16). In this lovely, wise book, Woolf offers a wholly original meditation on being ill. She captures the separateness from everyday life engendered by illness, the isolation (both the good and bad sides of it), and the ways in which illness inheres in identity.
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens (Twelve, $15). In his memoir Hitch-22, before he was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him, Hitchens wrote that he wanted to "stare death in the eye." In Mortality, his last book, he comes close to doing exactly that. He reports, like a journalist, from the excruciating limits of hospital life. He is brilliant, rueful, never facile, and he offers, among many, many other things, the closest we have to a code of etiquette on how to talk to the dying.
Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag (Picador, $16). This classic remains one of Sontag's finest books, urgent, dazzling in its research and logic. She makes a brilliant case against talking about illness in metaphors, and expounds on the very real and tangible danger to patients caused by the practice.
This Wild Darkness by Harold Brodkey (out of print). Though Brodkey's novels were vast and sprawling, and at times could have benefited from judicious pruning, his meditation on dying of AIDS is concise and perfectly crafted. The nearness of death, in this case, proved to be an effective editor.
Endpoint by John Updike (Knopf, $25). These poems, which Updike wrote during his last couple of years, are startling, visceral responses to his lung cancer. They have his trademark elegance and sensual beauty, but they also have the urgency of news flashes. He writes his way through the harrowing experience — analyzing, raging, consoling, creating — and in the end produces an astonishing coda to an unusually and gloriously productive life.