Great Reads on Living and Dying

If you, too, have a small (and when I say small, I mean significant) problem with buying more books than you will ever live long enough to be able to read, then I’m about to make your problem worse.

But it’s a pretty decent problem to have, right? The stack of books beside your bed just waiting to be read… the bulging queue in your Kindle… the wish list(s) on Amazon… while Books Awaiting can be stressful in a “why can’t I give up all my responsibilities and just get to curl up and read (and drink Brown Cows) all day” kind of way, it’s also dreamy to anticipate the reads to come, how our imaginations might be sparked, and even who we’ll be before vs. after reading the books (because some have the power to transform us, right?).

One day we will have time to consume the words we want, and even though we know those words right there really are a total lie, we suspend disbelief and just keep buying more books. (That’s how Amazon works: they know our gulp rate is slower than our purchase rate, but they’re selling the dream and even though Jeff Bezos is definitely not dreamy, we keep buying shit from him today and getting it on our doorsteps tomorrow. Or even better: instantaneously on our devices!)

The good news is that I’m recommending a few flip-through books that require no real commitment — ones you can dip into while waiting for the broccolini to steam, and then set aside until the next 4-minute window that pops up. Others will take more time, but you’ll figure it out.

I’ve rated each book according to how much they’ll widen your life (with vitality, or what I’m calling the “Frothy Fun Factor”) and how much they’ll deepen your life (with meaning, or what I’m referring to as “Life-Changing Potential”). Hope you find whatever amount of frivolity or profundity you’re looking for.

8 Books worth reading on life + death:

Astonish Yourself: 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life
By Roger-Pol Droit

Frothy Fun Factor: ♦♦♦♦
Life-Changing Potential: ♦

“Run in a graveyard” is #24 out of 101 everyday adventures this French philosopher advises to “shake us awake from our preconceived certainties: our own identity, the stability of the outside world, the meanings of words.” I was sold right then and there. Here’s a sampling from the long list of vitality-expanding exercises (and I dare you to do #22 today):

20. Imagine your imminent death
22. Count to a thousand
27. Invent lives for yourself
40. Shower with your eyes closed
42. Go to the circus
57. Turn off the sound on the TV
69. Consider humanity to be an error
74. Leave the cinema in daytime
75. Plunge into cold water
78. Tell a stranger she is beautiful
80. Wake up without knowing where
96. Kill people in your head (now you’re totally compelled to buy this, you delicious sicko)

The Five Invitations
By Frank Ostaseski

Frothy Fun Factor: Not so much fun, but sometimes we need to eat our veggies
Life-Changing Potential: ♦♦♦♦♦

This book helped wake me up to the work I really want to be doing (no, not saving kittens — a possible encore career though): helping people wake up to life with the unexpected but amusing help of death.
Frank Ostaseski writes about the five ways we can appreciate life’s preciousness, and just to whet your appetite I’m going to share them with you now:

1. Don’t Wait
2. Welcome Everything, Push Away Nothing
3. Bring Your Whole Self to the Experience
4. Find a Place of Rest in the Middle of Things
5. Cultivate Don’t Know Mind

The Bucket/F*ck it List: 3,669 Things to Do. Or Not. Whatever.
By Sara Kinninmont

Frothy Fun Factor: ♦♦♦♦
Life-Changing Potential: ♦

This book is perfect if you want to live before you die — more specifically, if you want to be inspired by ideas on how to “live so that when [you] come to die even the undertaker will be sorry” (thanks, Mark Twain).
You can check off each suggested item with “Bucket,” “F*ck It,” or “Done It,” so it’s also accommodating for those of us who aren’t always up for “eating a Frankfurter in Frankfurt, Germany,” or “making a reservation under the name Mike Hunt” (well, we’re always up for that). The book is perfectly ridiculous yet also makes it okay to embrace JOMO (the joy of missing out).

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
By Sogyal Rinpoche

Frothy Fun Factor: No diamonds, unless karma and rebirth are fun for you. Upon further reflection, rebirth deserves a diamond of fun, so:
Life-Changing Potential: ♦♦♦

This is kind of the bible for Tibetan Buddhist wisdom (which I suppose doesn’t make it a bible at all). It’s jam-packed with ways to live mindfully with compassion — with the theme of impermanence woven throughout to put it all in karmic perspective. Check out the book’s stunning simplicity (kind of like life, if we muzzle our monkey minds for a hot minute):

Part One: Living
Part Two: Dying
Part Three: Death and Rebirth
Part Four: Conclusion (what more of a conclusion could there be, beyond Parts Two + Three, right?!)

The New York Times Book of the Dead
Edited by William McDonald

Frothy Fun Factor: ♦♦ (Depends whose obit you’re reading &/or how much you revel in the misfortunes/deaths of others.)
Life-Changing Potential: ♦♦

I totally judge books by their cover (and I think you should admit you’re just as superficial too), so when I received this tomb-sized book in the mail as a gift from a friend, I knew I’d like it because it was just so damned gorgeous. I’m happy to report it has both style and substance.

Imagine a collection of 320 extraordinary obituaries packaged beautifully together, eloquently worded as you’d expect from the NYT? But wait — there’s more! A little doohickey web-key lets you access 10,000 digital obituaries, so all of your evenings and weekends can be filled with other people’s deaths! I’m in heaven over here, and also, I have a nice book to prop my laptop up on when I’m on Zoom — so the bonuses keep coming. (But really — obits can be poignant and inspiring. Read up!)

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
by Oliver Burkeman

Frothy Fun Factor: tbd, but probably highly amusing because he’s just so damned witty
Life-Changing Potential: tbd, but probably immensely impactful because he’s just so damned smart

One of my favorite authors is releasing his latest book in August (eerily similar to my company name; thanks for noticing) and I’m counting down the days. It’s supposed to be an “entertaining philosophical guide to time and time management, setting aside superficial efficiency solutions in favor of reckoning with and finding joy in the finitude of human life.” Nod with me; reading this book is how we want to spend our precious life-is-counting-down-rather-rapidly time this summer.

All My Friends are Dead
By Avery Monsen and Jory John

Frothy Fun Factor: ♦♦♦♦♦
Life-Changing Potential: diddly squat, but who cares?

Who doesn’t want to laugh at the expense of a melancholic dinosaur whose friends have all died (and mysteriously left him behind to mope)? If this book amuses you, the follow up, All My Friends are Still Dead, features a pig lamenting that all his friends are bacon. These books are just so much fun — so fun that you, too, will feel compelled to buy the t-shirt like I did.

And lastly…

I’d be a super-shit coach if I didn’t recommend the very best book of all: the one you do your thinking in. Expressive writing has been proven by researchers to be heartily beneficial — from boosting your psychological well-being to improving your working memory (and a bunch of other random things like reducing pelvic pain and improving your liver function) — so before you make your scrunchy face about journaling, give it a go (at least do it for your lungs, because strangely they benefit, too).

  • You might want to make a customized notebook so you can upload your favorite cat photo or whatever on the cover (I DO THIS AND I MOSTLY DON’T CARE IF YOU JUDGE ME FOR IT).
  • You could just buy a cute pre-made cat journal here.
  • Or just buy an unpronounceable Moleskine notebook and call it a day.

Frank Zappa said it best: “So many books, so little time.” If you knew you had a limited time on earth to live (trick question!), what words would you choose to fill your head? What ratio of light-‘n-easy vs. deep-‘n-weighty books would make you feel like your library of life was well-read and complete?

When in doubt, start with an almost-extinct dinosaur with a lot of dead friends.

Great Reads on Living and Dying

Jodi Wellman

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