Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Studs Terkel: Will the Circle be Unbroken? Reflections on Life, Death and a Hunger for a Faith

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 22, 2013

Will the circle be unbroken“Death can’t be talked down, or parlayed into anything; it simply declines to come to the negotiating table. It doesn’t have to pretend to be Vengeful or Merciful, or even Infinitely Merciless. It is impervious to insult, complaint or condescension. “Death is not an artist”: no, and would never claim to be one. Artists are unreliable; whereas death never lets you down, remains on call seven days a week, and is happy to work three consecutive eight-hour shifts. You would buy shares in death, if they were available; you would bet on it, however poor the odd” – Julian Barnes in Nothing To Be Frightened Of

These days I very often think of death and dying. My own ageing and the brushes with death of known people around me takes me to this subject very frequently. Thankfully at this stage I am not terrified of it. Increasingly, I see entire humanity (and myself included in it) as a teeming and yet another biological species in this petri-dish called Earth. And like all other species we have our natural life-cycles divided between living and dying. Sometimes I think we make too little of living and too much of dying. While the subjects of Religion, biology, medicine and philosophy touch upon the subject of death in different ways, I am not sure if they have provided any conclusive and comforting answers. My own approach is not to think and worry about it too much. All I wish is that I be granted a pain free and peaceful death. In a way that is a constant prayer I have these days. In the recent past, along with this wish to have a calm passage, I have also developed immense curiosity towards what others feel about death. I would like to know and understand how others see death and how do they reconcile themselves to it.

In literature I have come across very few books that have exclusive focus on death and dying. As an adolescent I remember reading Tolstoy’s “Kruetzer’s Sonata” where the predicament of a man on his deathbed is described brilliantly. Tolstoy left me with a stunning impression as if he has had a special acquaintance with death. Similarly, Julian Barnes’s “The Lemon Table” and ‘Nothing to be Frightened Of” are two other books that have had an exclusive focus on death and dying. Contrary to my expectations, the latter two were joyous reads so much so that I have included them in my list of books for re-reading. However, nothing prepared me for the wonderful experience I have had while reading Studs Terkel’sWill The Circle Be Unbroken – Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith” – a collection of 62 straight talking and bone honest conversations by men and women from all walks of life who tell what they feel about death and living in a manner that is deep and moving

I have known the writings of Terkel for over a decade now and through him I have understood the power, importance and beauty of oral histories. His books on the experiences of Great Depression (The Hard Times), Feelings about nature of work (Working) and II world war (The Good War) and on singers and singing (And They All Sang – Adventures of a Disc Jockey) have been my all time favourites. To that list I now add his “Will The Circle Be Unbroken…” What makes the book a memorable reading experience is Terkel’s ability to bring out the most honest and fearless thoughts of men and women on death. Through these conversations one gets to see the grandeur of being human, the nature of the fear of unknown, resigned indifference,  raging frustration, philosophical equanimity, a bubbling pride, concrete practicality and some rib tickling pettiness. There is much in this book that is very reassuring, comforting, practical and elevating. Some of the views expressed are closer to the one I have and some I have never thought through but can pretty well may own and imbibe in time to come

If there is one thought in the book that is very close to my own thoughts on death and dying it is by one Peggy Terry – a passionate civil rights activist from Chicago

I’m not sure what happens to us when we die. But why should we be so concerned about it? Think of it as a flower, or a tree that dies and adds its whatever, vitality, to the earth. Flowers die every year, Trees die. All living things die. So why are we so much more than the animals of the Earth, or the foliage, or any of it? I don’t know why we should all be so afraid of it. It’s a nuisance knowing you won’t be here anymore. The one thing I hate about thinking about dying is I won’t be able to read. If I could take books with me, I wouldn’t care  

Yes, even I would not worry about death if I could take books along with me


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