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  • Writer's pictureA.K. Lee

Book Review| The Grim Reader: Writings on Death, Dying, and Living On

Updated: Dec 29, 2021

This is a collection of writings edited by Maura Spiegel and Richard Tristman. It's definitely not casual reading, but it was thought-provoking and enjoyable, even, because the essays, poems and extracts selected range widely in tone and scope.

Death is not a topic most people like to ponder over, but I believe that we are better prepared for it by considering it and mulling over it. After all, it is inevitable. If I would plan for my holidays, despite not knowing if I could make the trip for certain, shouldn't I plan for my certain death? I have talked about it with my spouse and my other family members, and my original plan for this year's wedding anniversary is to get our wills written. I still plan on doing it - I have put it aside for long enough, and frankly the pandemic has only highlighted how much more we need to be prepared for the worst.

I started reading The Grim Reader early in 2019, and then set it aside to prepare for moving house; the book was promptly buried among the detritus of all my to-be-read pile after we moved. One great thing about reading extracts and essays is that I can start anywhere in the book and still have a great read. In this review, I am focusing on two essays that I found interesting, but if you want to indulge in examining various perspectives on death and the process of dying, I strongly recommend picking up a copy of this. I will be reviewing a couple of essays from this collection.

The first review is an account of the Plague in Florence, written by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by Richard Tristman. It is a prologue to the Decameron, a collection of tales about the entertainment of a band of young Florentine aristocrats hiding from the plague outside of the city. His account focuses on the social effect of the plague and how it transformed Florentine society. I couldn't help drawing parallels between how people of the past and people of today respond to epidemics and pandemics; people are always going to be people.

For a start, Boccaccio wrote about how the city tried to keep the plague out by cleaning it of "accumulated filth" and "sick travelers were kept away" - exactly what many cities did prior to the surge of covid-19 cases. Bulletins on hygiene were sent out, because people then and now need to be taught how to clean themselves properly. Of course, "the religious attempted to propitiate God through processions and other rituals" because despite having attained remarkable progress in science and medicine, in times of trouble, many people's first instinct is to turn to the divine, in the hopes of miracle cures.

"Everyone offered remedies -- not only learned physicians, but ignorant men and women peddling 'alternative cures' -- but nothing helped." I feel that every person who touts a cure without medical proof needs to shut up and be taken off mass media, and yes, I do mean presidents and other leaders of the land who run their mouths not caring if people will take them at their word and end up poisoning or killing themselves. It's irresponsible otherwise. (Not that many of these 'leaders' are responsible in the first place.)

Boccaccio elaborated on the different attitudes among the populace towards what must have seemed like an inevitable, painful demise. Some chose to hide away, refusing to hear anything about the plague, choosing instead to eat and drink moderately well. While that sounds good, I can't help but wonder if they accounted for the people who served them - the servants who brought them food and wine, the servants who cleaned up their messes and helped them get dressed? Were they quarantined from the outside world as well?

Meanwhile, others chose to abandon their inhibitions, choosing instead to drink and be merry, "laughing in the face of doom". No doubt they were more easily infected and also infected others, for they barged into private homes and wandered freely in and out of different quarters. How terrified they must have been to have given up all hope, to strive for every ounce of pleasure before death overtook them? When I think about the people who traveled for spring break, when I think about the people who were on cruises having the time of their lives, when I think about the revelers gathered for parties and concert and celebrations around the world, some of them refusing to heed a painful truth and do what is needed, preferring instead to focus on their own enjoyment, I wonder if they are doing alright. I do not wish illness on people, but sometimes I do wish they had a bit more common sense and empathy.

Boccaccio's account talks of how friends and family deserted those they loved when the plague struck them, how the rich fled the cities and brought the plague to the countryside (this one is familiar even today), and the staggering numbers of people "who died day and night in the city from lack of suitable care and the sheer power of the plague". It seems as if humanity has learned little from our lessons in the past. Thankfully, covid-19 is nowhere near as deadly as the plague. Around the world, we have seen helpers reaching out in their own ways to assist people around them. There are desperate folks terrified of losing their homes because landlords are threatening to evict them in this time of pandemic, but there are also kind people who opened up their homes to those without shelter. There are children who no longer have that one meal a day at school, but heroes like chef José Andrés and his team of volunteers for the World Central Kitchen are still cooking and distributing meals to the needy.

Chef José Andrés and his team in Puerto Rico; photo from

As of this moment of writing, I am unwell. I do not have a fever nor joint pain; I still retain my senses of smell and taste. I do have a cough and a sore throat, so sore that I can't swallow without some difficulty. My sinuses are somewhat blocked. I feel like I have barely any strength. I was exhausted and sweaty after a solo walk around my estate, when a few days ago, I could do my daily workout without strain. What concerns me most is that I am easily fatigued - this one post has taken over an hour to write when I should have needed barely half an hour - and once it is published, I will return to bed. I will get better soon. In the meantime, take care of yourselves, and help one another where you can.

Credit for illustration:

The Plague of Florence in 1348, as described in Boccaccio's Decameron. Etching by L. Sabatelli after himself.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

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