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3.65  ·  Rating details ·  577 Ratings  ·  117 Reviews
Now available in an elegant paperback, Robert Olen Butler's acclaimed collection, Severance, depicts the final thoughts of people as they are losing their heads. Celebrated as "glorious" (Los Angeles Times), these fascinating stories reveal "the limitless will of the author's imagination" (New York Times). Here are the imagined ultimate words of famous and invented figures ...more
Paperback, 264 pages
Published April 30th 2008 by Chronicle Books (first published 2006)
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Paul Bryant

This book’s dubious achievement is to associate chopping off people’s heads with cuteness. I bet you thought it could not be done. But the author came across two factoids – 1) after decapitation, the human head is believed [by who? by who?] to remain conscious for one and a half minutes; 2) in a heightened state of emotion (such as when you’ve just been executed) people speak at the rate of 160 words a minute. So, therefore, you see, 1 minutes gives us 240 words. So…. stay with me… let’s take 6
Apr 30, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: table, hey-shorty
i love the conceit of this book - it is genius. and the design is glorious, down to the smallest details like endpaper color. that being said, some of these work better than others. but some are truly great - especially when there are unexpected connections. i would be interested to know how much research went into this book, especially with the more contemporary "characters". this is the second book i have read in as many weeks where the author predicts his own death, and that makes me a little ...more
Joshua Nomen-Mutatio
My book cover blurb: "The decapitation one is better than the sex one."

I didn't exactly walk away from reading Butler's similarly structured book, Intercourse, with much love in my heart, so I felt like I could go into this one and out the other end with a similar outcome. This was actually the one that caught my attention first and interested me more than the one in which we read the one-page of thought from a person as they get know someone else, Biblically. At the time that I first stumbled u
Paula Cappa
Aug 18, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Imagine that you have about 90 seconds to remain conscious after your head is severed. This book of prose (62 stories, 250 words each) is based on a 19th century French doctor’s opinion that the head remains conscious for 90 seconds after decapitation. And, if it’s true that we speak at a rate of 160 words per minute during heightened states of emotion, then you might have a lot to think about in these last 90 seconds before all the blood drains from your brain. This book requires a slow and tho ...more
Nov 18, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: horsemen
Whether or not this is deserved, I associate Chronicle Books with titles like "Photographs of Kitschy 1970s-Era Cartoon Themed Garden Implements" and "Naughty Ilustrated Haiku By Cheesecake Models of the Mid-Fifties." This book is kind of in that vein, except the theme here is decapitation (and there are, thankfully, no pictures).

This here, consistent with my stereotype of Chronicle Books, is a gimmick. The gimmick is the idea that a person remains conscious for a minute and half after being beh
Anita Dalton
Jan 25, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: books-we-own
This book has an absolutely lunatic premise. It is said that a decapitated head can remain in a state of consciousness for 90 seconds. In heightened states of emotion or agitation, people can speak at the rate of 160 words per minute. Combine the two and you have the micro stories in this book. Read the rest of the review here:
May 29, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, underrated
In Severance, Robert Olen Butler combines two seemingly unrelated ideas: first, that consciousness lasts for one and a half minutes after decapitation, and second, that people speak at a rate of 160 words per minute when in a heightened state of emotion. Since people are likely pretty emotional once they've been decapitated, Butler figured that their final thoughts would run precisely 240 words -- the length of each of the book's 62 pieces, which seek to "capture the flow of thoughts and feeling ...more
Apr 01, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"After decapitation, the human head is believed to remain in a state of consciousness for one and one-half minutes."

"In a heightened state of emotion, people speak at the rate of 160 words per minute."

Pulitzer Prize-winning Robert Olen Butler has written 62 stories of 240 words in length, each about some decapitated figure (legendary, canonical, historical, zoological). These stories are insightful and ecstatic - I literally could not put this book down. I just sank into a chair and turned from
Jun 22, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Severance combines two theories: that consciousness is retained after decapitation for 90 seconds, and that, in heightened emotional states, people speak 160 words per minute. The book is sixty-two stories, at exactly 240 words each, from the heads of decapitated people: kings, queens, farmers, girls, businessmen, jihadists, authors, and mythological women, men and animals. It’s a fantastic book in its originality, its concept and, yeah, its execution.

I can’t remember the last book of poetry I r
Tina Marie
I had a look at what other people thought of this book & I find it odd that so many people have commented on the theme of this book being a gimmick. I'm a huge fan of short stories & I have found some of my favorite collections are linked stories or are centered around a particular theme. I absolutely agree with the people who've commented that these brief little stories are more akin to poetry than prose. They're so achingly beautiful.

And speaking of beauty, I also appreciated the pres
Jan 14, 2008 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: short-stories
I’ve said this before, but Robert Olen Butler is my favorite writer; I think he’s one of the most gifted writers around in terms of technical prose; and I think no one does stream of consciousness better than him. All that said, his last novel was terrible (Fair Warning), and the novel before that was mediocre (Mr. Spaceman). It’s clear now that he has decided to stick to his strengths – this work is another creative writing exercise for his talents. The premise behind Severance is the combinati ...more
Aj Sterkel
Jul 21, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is probably the most creative concept for a book I’ve ever seen. Supposedly, a head remains conscious for 90 seconds after decapitation. The author takes historical figures, animals, and mythological creatures who were decapitated and writes 240-word prose-poems about what goes through their minds in the 90 seconds after they lose their heads.

First, I have to say that I love the design of this book. The pages are really thick, and the colors, fonts, and layout are unusual. Whoever designed
Jul 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I saw this book on a cart outside Books-a-Million years and years ago. I looked through it, thought it was intriguing, and put it back. I have thought of it at various times over the years, and wished I had purchased it. Not only could I not remember the author's name, I also could not remember the title. The only thing I remembered was that each page was 240 words in length and there was no punctuation.

Fast forward to last week, when I just happened upon it online. Kismet!! It was at Half Pri
This didn't come together like I hoped deep down it would, and I can really only blame myself. The reviews, which I scanned beforehand, are full of people just like me. People who found out that this book is filled with stories of beheaded people throughout history, each story the exact length of what they believe a human head could think in those moments after being separated from the body. It's a great idea. Really intriguing. But like so many other readers here, I felt like it didn't work on ...more
Apr 26, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is an incredibly interesting collection of short-short stories based around the idea of what would someone say in the minute-and-a-half of "consciousness" that a head is supposed to retain after beheading. Sounds kind of gruesome, but it's not a horrific collection by any means. Assuming that a person in a heightened state can utter 160 words per minute and applying that to the 1.5 minutes of consciousness, the author tells stories that are all exactly 240 words in length of characters, bot ...more
Nick H
Feb 03, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Most reviews refer to this series as "gimmicky," but upon reading I feel the exact opposite. The theme of this book is the final thoughts upon being decapitated/beheaded/hed kut off. The gimmick would be if Butler used the occasion to bring about some sort of macabre second-by-second first hand account of a head rolling off the gallows. is not. It is rather poetic, and geared more towards the author's perception of the situation, whether real or imagined, and what could have been the l ...more
Jun 16, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2012
When this works, it works very well. When it doesn't, it is still a good read. It is a gimmick that only sometimes works, to be honest. Too often the recollections, though beautifully rendered in a mostly punctuation-less run-on, are merely accounts of how the person got to where they were, leading up to the moment of beheading. It doesn't shine, it doesn't illuminate, it doesn't philosophize or ruminate or make wonder: it renders. Butler is a wonderfully talented writer and has exploited the gi ...more
Apr 25, 2008 rated it it was amazing
A post-modern post-mortem -- 240 word entries of severed heads last thoughts. It sounds tremendously morbid, but it is a fascinating window into the intimacy of thought made more vivid through the use of truncation. We read a few of these short pieces while reading The Tale of Two Cities and the students I teach were hooked. They what-if and questioned one after another and the tantalizing realization of never knowing the rest of their life or tale was hammered into them in a way I could not hav ...more
Dec 11, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: adult-fiction
62 stories all 240 words in length detailing the final thoughts of people/animals who have recently been beheaded, from the Thanksgiving turkey to Anne Boleyn. The concept of Butler's collection of short stories was rather refreshing. It was something very different from the norm. But while I enjoyed a fair few of the stories, at some point after reading the majority of them, they started blurring together. I felt like each story was too similar in writing style or point of view to the one that ...more
Sherry Hays
Aug 15, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Robert Olen Butler was one of my professors at Florida State University and I have always enjoyed reading his work. This little book is unique and worthy of a read. Butler tells the tale of what goes through the mind of a person between the moment thier head is severed to death. He tells the reader that the head remains conscious for one and a half minutes after severance and that in a hightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute. From there, he tells a 240-word story ...more
Dec 01, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: other
Overall, I think I liked the idea of short stories consisting of severed heads' hypothetical final thoughts better than the execution (heh, execution). While the concept is one of the most original I've ever encountered, I wasn't especially impressed by Butler's writing. Some of the stories were touching, beautiful, or darkly funny, but most felt uninspired.
May 13, 2008 rated it it was ok
I really enjoyed the concept behind this piece of work but the execution (no pun intended) became repeatative and somewhat boring. Definately not a book to sit down and read cover to cover. Read one or two and let it rest on the night stand for a day or two.
Jul 18, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The conceit of this book is beautiful... the thoughts going through the heads of the beheaded in the flash blink of time between decapitation and loss of consciousness. As literature? It's a bit more complicated. The vignettes don't necessarily reflect the conceit when separated from the context. The languages is lovely and full of dreamlike imagery, but the memories blur pretty strongly. It feels like it might be better read as poetry, but as prose it wasn't as striking as the concept promises. ...more
Sarah Merrill
Oct 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Love the concept and it was a quick read. Such a wide scope of humanity in so few words. To be honest, it’s probably more like a 4 or 4.5, but there were a few standout pieces that pushed it up to 5 for me.
Aug 05, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting concept.
Alycia Calvert
Jan 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jul 11, 2008 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
There are a lot of things to admire about this collection--Butler is very creative with his choices of heads and often tackles the question of what final thoughts may go through a mind in its final 90 seconds between decapitation and death (according to the famous epigram by Dr. Dassy D'Estaing) in intriguing ways . Butler manages to surprise often in this historical sequence, from convicts to unfaithful (maybe) spouses to beasts and myths to royalty. The premise itself is intriguing--a sequence ...more
Jennifer Worrell
Here's the thing. The concept is brilliant: it is believed that a human head stays conscious for 1.5 minutes after decapitation. When excited, a person can speak 160 words per minute. Thus each one of these stories are 240 words (160 x 1.5 = 240). The edges of the pages are ragged. And did anyone else feel like the type of the stories were designed in the shape of a butcher knife? Was that just my sick imagination? Proceeding each tale is the name of a famous decapitated person and an extremely ...more
Sep 17, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: morbids, poetry lovers, history buffs who like poetry a little, agnostics
Shelves: how-to-be-human
a collection of "short stories" from variously famous and unknown victims of decapitation in the moments after they've lost their heads.

he calls them short stories but i say they're poetry. they each follow a structure (a set amount of words which he estimates a person could think in the amount of time which people are estimated to be able to think after decapitation), and the imagery is often intense and beautiful.

i found the best way to read this was one or a few of these per night, so as to
Feb 10, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Under the believe that when decapitated, the human head retains consciousness for up to 90 seconds, and that in instances of extreme agitation a person can speak up to 160 words a minute, each of these short stories are 240 words long and written from the point of view of the beheaded. From the beginning of humanity (a caveman) up to modern day, we enter the last thoughts of 61 humans and 1 chicken, immediately following the separation of their heads from their bodies. I read this all in one sit ...more
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“I’ll never stop believing it: Robert Olen Butler is the best living American writer, period.”
– Jeff Guinn, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Robert Olen Butler has published sixteen novels—The Alleys of Eden, Sun Dogs, Countrymen of Bones, On Distant Ground, Wabash, The Deuce, They Whisper, The Deep Green Sea, Mr. Spaceman, Fair Warning, Hell, A Small Hotel, The Hot Country, The Star of Istanbul, The Empir
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