What Novels to Read When Facing Death

Like thousands of others in the Boston area, I felt like the thin thread between life and death was more closely measured last month. My wife and I were near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday, April 15, roughly 160 feet from where one of the bombs  would later go off. We watched the elite women and men, then stayed in the area until shortly after 2:00. When the bombs did explode, I was at mile 25.5, the very place where runners were stopped by police. I wrote a first person account of the experience for my old employer, WBUR Radio, later that day.

Tangential connections started racking up. One of those killed lived near me and was friends with an old classmate.  The MIT police officer killed in an ambush on Friday wanted to be a police officer in my town. Then we learned that the bombers themselves lived only a mile away. A friend reminded me that we’d grabbed dinner at a restaurant across the street from their house days before the attacks.

Amid the violence and collective fear, I had a novel on my nightstand that could not have been more inconsequential. The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington chronicles vapidity in a threat-less world. The plot concerns the Amberson family, an old money clan, facing the reality of the 20th Century. Their crisis? The era they are entering will not be so kind to individuals who believe “being things is ‘rahthuh bettuh’ than doing things.” 

The main character of The Magnificent Ambersons is a spoiled brat named George Amberson Minafer. His love interest, Lucy, though the novel’s most compelling character, struggles to break free of scenes involving sleigh rides and cotillions:

“Come on!” she cried. “Let’s dance!”

He followed her.

“See here—I—I—” he stammered. “You mean—Do you—”

“No, no!” she laughed. “Let’s dance!”

He put his arm about her almost tremulously, and they began to waltz. It was a happy dance for both of them.

Reading this book was worse than a chore the week of April 15. The Magnificent Ambersons was like a deckchair on the Titanic or a ditty plucked out in a burning Rome.  The characters were anemic and the stakes low. Here was a time where fiction failed to show its value.

Perhaps it is unfair to hold a book like Ambersons to such a high standard. It makes no claim to being relevant to all people in all times. But then again, it was included on the Modern Library’s top 100 English novels of the 20th century, where it keeps company with some real giants. To be a “great novel” you do need to have universal relevance. That’s what makes you great. Otherwise, a book is merely a cultural artifact.

What novels should you read when life feels like a razor’s edge? Big novels, gut-punching novels, novels with no sense of varnish or artifice. Books where the author is jumping mad, stumbling drunk, and delirious with love for every moment left in the day.

What books make that cut for you?

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