Note: this piece is adapted from my Substack, Discovery Magazine, which focuses on the books and movies you need to read before you die.
Over the course of the year, I did something I didn’t think I was going to do.
I called people who had faced death—real death—and I asked them about it.
I talked to them about it. And I tried to tease out the intimate details that, at first, some of them didn’t even reveal to friends, family, and everyone else for years because, frankly, they thought it sounded absolutely insane.
But the reason I found these people—and trust me, finding these people wasn’t, initially, an easy task—was so I could ask them what their literary suggestions would be. Basically:
‘What’s the one book you think everyone should read before they die?’
The truth is, time is short, and time is limited. We have a series of moments—brief moments—that add up in a string, and the string we call life has a finite endpoint.
Maybe there’s something on the other side—if we believe first-person accounts from some of the people you’re about to read, then it’s true—but either way, the point is: life is limited.
We only have so many books, movies, and things to do, and it’s best—apt—to think about our limited time. Asking people, “what’s the one book you should read before you die” might not end up in a book you read.
But the question forces the person to cut through the complexity and the distraction and the noise and get you closer to the books that’ll be worth reading.
Over the summer and year of 2021 for my own newsletter, I asked people with life-shattering experiences what their favorite books were.
Here’s what they told me.
Quotes edited for readability
1. Peter Panagore — experienced clinical death for a few minutes induced by hypothermia
When I chatted with Peter Panagore, I realized you don’t get the idea—the real idea—of what he’s been through until you start talking to him.
But it quickly dawns on you that when you imagine what he tells you—going up a mountain, and then freezing to death—the point that always leaves people starstruck is the idea that he actually died.
Peter Panagore actually died on that mountain. He was clinically dead for a few minutes.
And after that, his life changed forever.
He saw, as he reports, a “darkness spread into infinity” and a type of “intelligence”. He calls that intelligence by the colloquial “angel” but the point is, the angel guided him back to life (he eventually got off the mountain), and for decades—because the experience was so insane, so nutty—he “kept [his] mouth shut for decades.”
When we talked about his favorite book (Ulysses, by James Joyce), he lit up like a Christmas tree.
“I tried to read it three times, and I could not,” he told me.
“I reached this place in the book where I did not understand what was going on, and I thought — this man has no idea what he’s doing. He’s completely lost it.
“And then finally I thought: I’m going to get it on Audible, and I’m going to listen to it as a story.
“[And] there’s this place in the novel that goes on for like pages and chapters of this incomprehensible — what seems to be — babble that’s being spilt on the pages. And you have to understand, this is a day in the life of one person. You’re inside his head and suddenly it becomes completely incomprehensible…And yet it goes on and on and on and on.
“And the language is obtuse, but it’s also beautiful….But the difficulty of trying to penetrate the meaning was impossible….
“And then — in a paragraph — all of that meeting was explained in an instant, and then all of the previous babble turned into not-babble….”
When I asked him how the book made him feel, he said something that struck me almost dumb. I remember being on the phone, and thinking, I’d love to quote this in the article one day:
“[The book] made me feel like I’m never going to be the greatest writer there ever was, for one thing. But it made me feel like art — the literary arts — are a high form of human communication that imparts beauty and humor, a humanistic understanding of psychology and relationships. It was — it was just the fullness of — it made me feel like I was part of the human race.”
2. Dave “Bio” Baranek — nearly died in a plane crash
When I talk to Dave “Bio” Baranek, I always get a bit of thrill. He exudes the kind of integrity and honesty that’s distinctive of someone you imagine to be ex-military.
But with risk, comes death.
For Dave “Bio” Baranek, a Top Gun RIO (meaning, radar intercept officer), death came close. A series of events happened that, strangely, as he was explaining it to me, made me realize how technically and mechanically complex the situation was.
But the short version: when he was in the back of a Tomcat fighter squatron, his plane—after a mechanical malfunction—ended up crashing into the Indian ocean.
The plane was sinking, but through training, reflex, and ‘holy-shit’ survival mechanisms, they got out.
Switching gears, I asked him about his favorite book—and he made the point that it had nothing whatsoever to do with his experience.
“The book that I would read is called The Once and Future King by T.H. White,” he said.
“Now, I’ve got to qualify this. It’s not about wizards. It’s not about magic. It’s not about dragons. Even though there are wizards and magic and dragons — but they’re bit players.
“I mean, I don’t like that. I don’t like fantasy reading. That’s not what I read.
“This is a story about a kid who grows up to be a king, and it’s thrust on him and he is unprepared for it — but what he has, you know, his character, makes him prepared for it.
“But then all of the incredible, great things and the incredible tragedies that he experiences…I mean, the first time I read it, I was in high school.
“I did not appreciate it — but it stuck with me.
“I read it again a few years later and then I just read it for at least the third time or maybe the fourth time. And I just totally enjoyed it because it’s…[…]…it’s substantial and it’s just rich with characters and activity. And also the portrayal of life, you know, at least a thousand years ago. Daily life.
“But I think one reason that I like it is that it shows these people who are just the most incredible people — and yet they have to deal with the drudgery and tragedy of human nature.”
3. Nayano Taylor-Neumann — illness and how it teaches us to be aware of death
When I got an email from Nayano Taylor-Neumann, she told me she was “aware of death”. I’ve always thought of death as something that was worth being aware of—if not in the direct sense, then in the peripheral sense, meaning we should think about the people we want to be with, the things we want to do, and the goals we want to achieve, all within the specter of the idea that we don’t have unlimited time. We only have right now.
For her, something similar had occurred. Due to inertia and life and all the little things that keep people in one place, she’d lived in Australia for far too long, even though she’d always wanted to move.
But when she was diagnosed with a critical lung disorder, it changed her mind. Life was limited. Time was short.
It was time to do something. She moved to the United States, and in the meantime, told me a book she’d enjoyed—though she had trouble with the question:
“I found that an impossible question to choose just one book when you frame it like that,” she said to me.
“But when I reframed it for myself saying what book can I really remember pleasing me, the first one that came to my mind was a pretty recent one. And it’s called A Gentleman in Moscow.
“Count Rostov [the protagonist] is a delightful character. When you see the world through his eyes, it is a delightful place. And the delight is in the details. How he looks at a tiny pair of embroidery scissors that used to belong to his sister. And how he describes those scissors is entrancing.
“And the way he speaks and the way he describes his life….I mean, it’s not a totally easy life — he can move anywhere in the hotel; he still goes to the incredibly fancy restaurants and so on — but it’s just delightful….”
She then goes on to impart some advice.
“Delight is all a creation of your own consciousness,” she said.
“You do not need anything outside of yourself, apart from whatever is in your everyday life, whatever that might be, to have delight. And so if you are confined at home, then the novel is a constant reminder to look and to actually see what is around you, and to hear what is around you, and to smell what is around you and delight in it.
“But you don’t need to leave the house to go on a journey of delight.”
4. Tricia Barker — experienced clinical death after a car accident
I’ve been in a car accident before. Another person was driving, we were hit in the back—the car started to go off the road to stop—then both of the drivers talked to each other, it was brief, and that was that.
There are car accidents, of course.
Then, there are car accidents.
Tricia Barker was just a college student—she was rushing to a race that day—when she finally found herself hitting a car at 60mph. The series of events was dizzying, but she found herself on an operating table, then dying—actually dying (just like Peter)—and encountering a near-death experience.
An NDE is the common abbreviation, but it stands for people who face death, die, then come back to life. What they report on the other side of that death experience is, what seems to be, a tangible spiritual experience that feels alien and strange and incomprehensible to non-near-death-experience eyes like our own.
But when she experienced it—her own soul floating out of the room, family and relatives, and a peace and love that seemed, strangely, absent for much of her life—she felt it was real.
Something real on the other side was there, and the book she chose, strangely, dealt with her own exploration of spirituality, the other side, and living here, now, in this world:
“When people ask me what book I would choose (if you had to pick just one book) I usually say The Brothers Karamazov. Just because it shows — and not so much about the near-death experience — but it just shows the problem of taking anything to an extreme in this life.
“So if you take one of the brothers — the intellectual, the professor — the professor ends up losing his mind. The spiritual seeker becomes unreachable and unable to feel human love. He could only feel love for God. The brother who was more athletic and passionate is seen losing control of himself in bar fights. Any path that you take too far is a balance.
“So that taught me how to live. More so after the near-death experience, I had these moments of just wanting to go to an ashram and just meditate and not be anxious and just live in that space — and that wasn’t my calling. My calling was to be here in this world.”
“And sometimes this world is a mess. And sometimes, what you’re doing is you’re loving people and helping just a little in the middle of a big mess.”
5. Jose Hernandez — near-fatal allergic shock
Jose Hernandez was featured in the Netflix docuseries ‘Surviving Death’. His story is surreal and insane and all-encompassing—and, oddly, it all started when the man decided to take ibuprofen.
It was for breaking his ribs, which quickly turned into an allergic reaction.
He’s at the hospital, suffocating, when it happens—just like Tricia, just like Peter, a near-death experience.
Through this experience he meets—and makes peace—with his dead father, he sees memories flash before his eyes and feels his soul leave his physical body. I remember he was telling me all of this, and just hearing him talk—it’s hard not to believe someone when they’re telling you a nuanced, intricate account of something over the phone for something that felt like over an hour.
The phone call was emotional, but when I asked him about his favorite books, it tied directly with his experience:
“There is a book called Spirit Walker…It was a book that was gifted to me by my new wife. And — I was still — although I had embraced my experience — what if…what if it wasn’t real? Right?
“That book helped to anchor me and said, you know, we live in a world where we know so little — and yet we think we know so much.
“And we do have a lot of answers.
“But — when we look at the big picture — we have very, very few answers.
“I know the world’s gonna think I’m crazy. But this fantasy story — which [laughs]…sometimes I wonder if, maybe it’s real? Maybe you think you’re writing a story, and you’re writing a story that you’re creating — but maybe you’re just retelling a story you already lived.
“I look at it like that. [The author is] just recreating a story he already lived — 5,000 years in the future. It helps me to make sense of today. Even though most people would say the opposite — that’s a way of not making sense.
“But it’s the peace of being open, and saying, you know, I don’t know a lot of things.”
Bonus Book Recommendation—’Family Life’, by Akhil Sharma, recommended by Mohnish Soundararajan
When I was thinking about this, it was hard to pick my own favorite book recommendation.
What if I was picking the wrong book? What if—deep down—my fascination with this book was just a“phase” and the book that I picked wasn’t apt?
All of a sudden I was facing the artificial microscope I’d put on Nayano—basically: it feels impossible to pick a “one book everyone should read before they die” maybe because there’s something implicitly wrong with the question.
But the question, for all its constraints, is useful. It forces us to make a choice at a point in a time—a decision: what’s the book you want to talk about when you finally get the chance to?
And for me, that book is Family Life, by Akhil Sharma.
There was a moment when I was—right after having finished the book—just staring at something (I don’t remember what) in the room I was in. I was overwhelmed with emotion; that raw feeling you get after being devastated by a book.
It’s a moment in my own life that I remember, clear as day. I can see it in my head, right now.
And Family Life is the book that produced that kind of visceral reaction: it’s a book that’s defined by its emotional honesty, an elegant sense of simplicity (it’s less of a narrative, more of a fictional retrospective of a man’s life growing up), and I absolutely adored it.
It was “full of life”, as the author tried to do, and it was beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.
It was the thing that re-sparked my own fascination with novels, and it reminded me of what Peter said before—that books have a depth in understanding humanity that is hard to be matched with another medium.
That, I took to heart.
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