Thursday, January 5, 2012

Reflections: Death Be Not Proud

Adam C. Zern opines on John J. Gunther's memoir Death Be Not Proud:

"It's somewhat of a recurring story for me: I found Death Be Not Proud at the Book Warehouse for cheap.  I was looking in the 'Classics' section and read on the cover of Mr. Gunther's book that it was a 'Modern Classic.'  This lofty classification caught my attention, and I was willing to give the book a chance.

It's hard for me to criticize Death Be Not Proud.  The only reason for this is because of the subject of the memoir.  John Gunther, Jr., the son of the author and the subject of the memoir, is diagnosed with a brain tumor and the book details the last several months of the boy's life.  The author makes sure to let the reader know of his son's best qualities and attempts to endear the reader to him.  Sadly, though, I felt very little connection to the son aside from an expected and normal human sympathy that I would feel toward anyone who was so afflicted.

My theory as to why I felt such little attachment is also my biggest criticism of Death Be Not Proud.  It's all a bit too clinical.  The author seems to want to avoid becoming maudlin or assigning philosophical meaning to much of anything.  Ironically, when he does become philosophical or obviously emotional the book is its strongest.  But he does it rarely.  It gives the reader very little reason to continue reading aside from reading a somewhat more personal albeit clinical account of a patient with a brain tumor.  In fact, after the author has finished his narrative, he includes dozens and dozens of pages of his son's letters and diary entries that, if read without the context of the book, would have absolutely nothing to do with the son's struggle, at least most of them.  The best part of the book is what the son's mother writes in regards to the experience, but it's only a few pages.

Clearly the publisher feels that Death Be Not Proud is a 'modern classic.'  I would most certainly differ with that assessment.  I don't like criticizing the book for human reasons and not academic ones.  Unfortunately, I didn't think the book was human or academic enough to be well remembered."

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