21st Century Literature discussion

Question of the Week > How Would Knowing The Exact Date Of Your Death Change Your Reading? (1/26/20)

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message 1: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2719 comments Mod
Imagine you have been gifted/cursed with the knowledge of when you will die. You don't know how and nothing you do will change this date. How would this change your reading? Would it change what you chose to read or how much time you spent reading? Would you still be reading the book(s) you currently have in progress? It's not going to be soon, but it is going to be significantly sooner than you anticipated or than average.

message 2: by Sara G (new)

Sara G | 44 comments It's funny but I have thought of this before.

I do not think it would change my reading. I always find myself partway through a mediocre new book and think, "why am I reading this? Why have I let the publicity machine get to me? There are still Woolf novels I haven't read!" Then I make a vow that I will, going forward, prioritize books that I haven't read yet but know I will love when I do. Time passes, and when it comes time to choose my next book, I still go for what's under discussion or what's available at the library, instead of these great books that await me.

message 3: by Ellie (new)

Ellie (elliearcher) | 153 comments I'm not sure I would read at all. I think I would spend every possible moment with my family and friends. I'm not sure I could concentrate on a book.

message 4: by Hugh (new)

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2716 comments Mod
Depending on how far away the date was, it might persuade me to stop working, which in the short term would create more reading time. I have never believed in planning my reading longer term anyway - there is just so much to explore that there will always be gaps. I would probably get rid of a lot of books too.

message 5: by Antonomasia (last edited Jan 26, 2020 09:22AM) (new)

Antonomasia | 156 comments It's not duration alive that actually counts, though, it's duration able to read at the same level as currently.

For the past six months I have been reading the stuff I would read in this situation - having been pissed off for years, feeling like others, who could reasonably expect to be in good health till 80+, and who had been so for nearly all of their lives so far, were pushing me to read ephemera so I could be part of the community and discussions I wanted to be in. Most arts consumption in wealthy countries is predicated on these norms anyway - there are many many years available for it. People might choose differently if it was like it was 150+ years ago, where earlier and sudden death was quite common. (Some old diarist somewhere must have written about this but I haven't read such a thing.)

On a personal level finally reading these books is an absolute win-win because the satisfaction is much greater than with brand new stuff, and then the longer I am able to going forwards I will be able to use these classics in understanding other books, having read a lot of them more recently than friends around my age who perhaps read them as students - and so far it has not actually got me pushed out of anything related to contemporary fiction. (However, reading mostly canonical classics by white men, and far more significantly, contributing to the reproduction of their value by posting about them online, does make me look bad to anyone with clear standards about reading diversity and/or hypocritical if they consider that people must practise what they preach. Not many activities are perfect across all dimensions.)

I frequently want to ask people this question, especially when I see them reading strings of books they don't like or don't value. But they might get the wrong idea (about me - when what I am dealing with has a high level of uncertainty, whereas people's imaginations tend to jump to terminal).

It also takes a while for a person to get their head round a situation like this when it is real and so I guess this may be why there aren't more lists of what people would read if they had 2/5/10 years available.

Ellie - I was curious how old you might be and on your profile it says you are retired; people of retirement age (at least that I know) are already more selective about their reading and aware of the value of time with it. Whereas for people in their 30s to 50s thinking about reading time according to maybe 5/10 years left would change the outlook quite a lot. (Especially for those who don't have kids - if they do their answer would probably be more like yours.)

message 6: by lark (new)

lark benobi (larkbenobi) | 221 comments hmm, hmm, hmm, I'm with Ellie that I'd stop reading altogether, although my first thought of what I'd do with my remaining time had something to do with sitting in a grassy field, watching the clouds go by.

message 7: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia | 156 comments Would you really stop reading for as long, say, as 5-10 years?
(This is after all a fantastical scenario of foreknowledge, rather than the few months to a couple of years that would often be given by medics in a RL terminal situation.)


message 8: by Kathleen (new)

Kathleen | 279 comments These are such thought-provoking comments.

It would probably be a matter of priorities, something like
1. Settle unfinished business (of all kinds)
2. Lots of contemplating--the field-sitting and cloud gazing Lark mentions.
3. Make each moment count. Three things come to mind that enhance my moments. The biggest is love/relationships, but after that is learning and travel. Those two expand the world for me, and it seems like if there was enough time, expanding the world would be what I'd want to do. Given time and ability, I'd probably be off traveling with loved-ones, taking in sights and sounds and, yes, books. You know, Thoreau's "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life" kind of thing.

So to answer the question, I'd toss aside all the non-marrow-sucking books. :-)

message 9: by carissa (last edited Jan 26, 2020 11:09AM) (new)

carissa A Vedic Astrologer has given me this information. 2048, I'm looking at you!

I'm with Lark, in general, and not just about reading. Hanging Out and Beveraging and Cloud/Wave gazing, no better way to live, for me, really.

message 10: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2498 comments Kathleen wrote: "... I'd toss aside all the non-marrow-sucking books...."

But I have a hard time figuring out what those are, especially a priori.

message 11: by Whitney (new)

Whitney | 2160 comments Mod
Interesting question, as usual. I know that I wouldn't stop reading, if I had something I'd rather be doing, I'd be doing it. As Hugh said, if the time was close enough, I would spend less time working (but probably just fewer hours, I like my job).

One thing I think it would do is decrease my enjoyment of reading. I'd constantly be questioning my choices. Either "why am I putting all this effort into a difficult book, my time is limited!" or "why am I wasting my time with this popcorn reading, my time is limited!" Kind of a a lose-lose.

This made me think of the quote from the 92 year old Oliver Wendall Holmes. When asked by Franklin Roosevelt why he was reading Plato, he responded "To improve my mind".

message 12: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia | 156 comments Hmm, another way of framing it to get answers that were actually about books: If you knew you only had time left to read about x number more books (for the sake of argument 5 or 10 times the number you read in an average year, depending on age) what sort of stuff would you choose to read?

The dying hypothetical seems to push a lot of people away from the idea of reading at all - but restrictions could be due to all sorts of things like getting a job that involved flat-out work, or spending lots of time looking after someone else, or animals, or ...
Or maybe that is still a lot for people to adjust around suddenly.

message 13: by Carol (last edited Jan 26, 2020 09:01PM) (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 452 comments I’d abandon mediocre reads with even less guilt, and probably stop writing reviews. My family are the same people after my diagnosis as they are now, and my reading gives us both breathing room from one another. :). Plus, thinking back about my pending death with a date certain would create so much anxiety that I’d desperately need reading as a break from thinking about the sands passing through the hourglass. The alternative is to drink more and that hardly seems like the better coping mechanism.

message 14: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2719 comments Mod
I don't think I would read any less or more on a daily basis, but I would probably reprioritize the books I'd like to read (weed out a bunch from the TBR list, get rid of books I've owned for years and still haven't read, waste less time on books I'm only partially interested in, etc.).

Carol's comment about no longer writing reviews makes me think, I might actually cut out other things so I could read more (e.g., watch less TV or spend less time reading news websites).

Life can certainly be busy, but if I'm not currently spending time with certain people, that's because I'm currently choosing not to do so. Learning when I die wouldn't make me suddenly want to cram them into my life. (That's also why the question was framed as your death would not be soon, but sooner than you anticipated.)

It's fascinating how such info would cause anxiety in some of us and relief in others. OK, no one really said they'd be "relieved" to know that info, but more than a few of you sounded like you appreciated the opportunity to plan around/for it.

message 15: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2498 comments Carol wrote: "I’d abandon mediocre reads with even less guilt..."

I'm smiling. Why guilt at abandoning mediocre reads, unless there is some specific reason for continuing, when we all know that the world has much more available to read than any one will have a chance to read, no matter how long or short a time we have to live? Is it the "finish what one has started" syndrome, or something else?

message 16: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 452 comments Lily wrote: "Carol wrote: "I’d abandon mediocre reads with even less guilt..."

I'm smiling. Why guilt at abandoning mediocre reads, unless there is some specific reason for continuing, when we all know that th..."

I’ve tamped it down to a bare minimum, but I am surrounded by completists in real life and, to a lesser extent, here, and still have flickers of feeling the need to defend what seems simply sensible to me. You’re on the fully realized adult dodgeball team toward whose side I run daily, but I fail to quite get over the line most days.

message 17: by Lily (last edited Jan 26, 2020 10:45PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2498 comments Carol wrote: "....still have flickers of feeling the need to defend what seems simply sensible to me. You’re on the fully realized..."

You flatter me too much, Carol. But I am on the side of life arc that can put narrower estimates on years left to read and have also encountered counselors who decried the value of "guilt" as a useful life response. Incidentally, I am still wrestling with how to respond to Marc's question -- partly because I have watched the loss of two members of my 30 yr old f2f book group. I believe they each kept on reading much of the same things right up until death.

message 18: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 452 comments Lily wrote: "Carol wrote: "....still have flickers of feeling the need to defend what seems simply sensible to me. You’re on the fully realized..."

You flatter me too much, Carol. But I am on the side of life ..."

I’m sorry this is so personally relevant. My guess is, not knowing them, that they had plenty of decisions they had to make and serious topics to consider and about which to make decisions, and “what to read and do I change my approach “ didn’t rise to the level of “things I need to consider and decide.” I can imagine being weary of decisions and accepting that the status quo is fine for 90% of my approach to life.

message 19: by Whitney (last edited Jan 27, 2020 11:22AM) (new)

Whitney | 2160 comments Mod
Interesting that most of us would make changes, even without knowing when the date was (except those who would change work if it was sooner). The date could be when we are 90 years old, which is longer than most of us expect to live now.

Did just the idea of a specific date cause a more concrete realization of mortality? Would people's answers change if the premise was that your date of death was predetermined, but you don't get to see it?

message 20: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 452 comments Whitney wrote: "Interesting that most of us would make changes, even without knowing when the date was (except those who would change work if it was sooner). The date could be when we are 90 years old, which is lo..."

A specific date doesn't make mortality any more real. What it does, though, is allow me to project manage toward that date. If it was predetermined and nothing I could do would impact it, then I'd toss the statins in the trash, allocate all of that time spent either in well visits or on exercise for the sake of health to socializing with friends, and laugh in the face of the universe. But it wouldn't change my reading if I don't know the date.

message 21: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 452 comments Whitney wrote: "Interesting that most of us would make changes, even without knowing when the date was (except those who would change work if it was sooner). The date could be when we are 90 years old, which is lo..."

So I think one thing that's missing is that, while we all accept the inevitability of our death, we tend to assume we'll live to be 90+ until a physician tells us otherwise. When you say you'll give us a date, I for one assume that that date will be sooner than my best case scenario date which is a fit, robust, perfect hearing 99. If you told me I'd live to be 120, I wouldn't change a thing until I was 90 or so. But assuming rational parameters, I anticipate that the rules of the game will give me a finite 20 or 25 years instead of a finite 40. Does that make sense?

message 22: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2354 comments I think the only specific change that knowing the exact date of death would cause me to make is to sure I read the books I save for when I need a read I know I am going to enjoy. There are a few series where I like to keep the last one written until another is published. But I doubt I'm ever going to be able to read all the books that clutter my shelves. The first think I would do, if the date were sooner than I think I need to make my savings last, is to expedite the travel schedule. It has been intense since retirement but there are still so many places I want to experience. That might actually decrease reading, as we pack so much into our trips that I read less than I do when not traveling. Of course, at a certain point, travel will likely not be physically possible and then time to read may increase, as I'll be traveling through the characters in the books. The older I get the more there is I want to know and learn. Sitting in a grassy field won't cut it, but walking a trail in the woods or across hills or fields will, as will drinking good wine with friends and laughing and crying with them.

message 23: by Dorottya (new)

Dorottya (dorottya_b) | 32 comments There are those classics which I have been a bit afraid of reading, because they are either really-really long or long-ish with, I suppose, old or really flowery language - I have this feeling that if I start reading them, I just don't have enough time for other books in that certain year. If I was told that I would die in, let's say, 3 years, I would just take a deep breath and start reading, for examokes, Les Miserables and Gone With the Wind.

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