High school English is where I first learned not everybody can be understood by everyone. It’s in As I Lay Dying, chapter 19. Vardaman says, My mother is a fish.
That’s it. End of chapter. My teacher wanted to tell us what Faulkner meant. I didn’t feel the need to know. You can like a rhythm or savor a sound, and not have a clue what it means.
Not knowing is itself knowledge. At the beginning I think I can learn. At the end I know I cannot. It is the middle where I see the truth.
Perhaps it is merely fortuitous that Vardaman’s soliloquy begins the middle third of Faulkner’s book
The deepest knowledge, I’ve learned, can be awareness of the chasm separating you from someone else. (87)
I declared that David R. Dow’s book The Autobiography of an Execution was the book that had the greatest impact on me in 2011. It opened my eyes to injustices in the legal system, especially on death row, and I still think about the book, now 3 years later. When 12 asked if I wanted to talk about Dow’s newest book Things I’ve Learned from Dying, I didn’t even think twice.
The Autobiography of an Execution is an important book, but the writing style got in the way. If I remember correctly, it is disjointed and occasionally metaphorical in a distracting way, and just generally in need of a better editor. Fortunately, Dow seems to have found one. I had none of those concerns with Things I’ve Learned from Dying. It’s beautifully written, elegant prose, that doesn’t mask Dow’s unique voice.
Things I’ve Learned From Dying is about death row and an inmate named Waterman who most people decide doesn’t deserve to die. It’s also about Dow’s father-in-law’s short battle with terminal melanoma. It’s also about their family dog Winona’s sudden death from kidney failure. It’s not an easy book to read, you know how each of these stories end. In a way, Things I’ve Learned From Dying is a way to keep all three living, immortalized; it’s also a rumination on what it means to know that death is near, for yourself, for a loved one.
This is a hard book to recommend, but I do think you should read it. It is a book that is filled with tragedies, but it is also filled with love.