This is a transcript of Recommended Season 2 Episode 11.
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This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. Today Caitlin Doughty shares her love for The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, and Sherry Thomas reminisces about The Legends of the Condor Heroes by Louis Chan.
Caitlin Doughty is a mortician, activist, and funeral industry rabble-rouser. In 2011 she founded the death acceptance collective The Order of the Good Death, which has spawned the death positive movement. Her first book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, was a New York Times best-seller. Her latest book, From Here to Eternity, is an immersive global journey on how various cultures care for the dead.
My name is Caitlin Doughty, and ‘The Denial of Death’ by Ernest Becker is my recommended.
I found ‘The Denial of Death’ for the first time in 2009. I was a mortuary school student. I was doing research in the library, and I saw this older book on the shelf, and I pulled it down and decided to take it out, just because ‘The Denial of Death,’ what a great death-y sounding book title. Within the first few pages, it was like this is what I have been looking for.
I had been working at a crematory prior to that. I had all these ideas about death and its relationship to culture and these vague feelings, but here was someone in a book who actually said, with sources and philosophy and psychology, that death is in everything we do and motivates everything we do. It’s written in an elegant way, and it’s a real academic who’s done the work on this.
‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’, which was my first book, was already starting to be written, but it was much more stories. It was much more stories about working in the crematory, it wasn’t … I wasn’t as comfortable mixing philosophy and different disciplines into the work. I think Ernest Becker, his background a little bit is, he was trained as a cultural anthropologist, but he pursued multiple disciplines. And that made him actually a really bad fit for academia, in many ways. But with big subjects like life and death, you need to bring in all the disciplines. He really, in many ways, inspired me to do that in my own writing, and I like to bring in anthropology and psychology and philosophy whenever I can to combine it with the real life stories of working with death.
Becker has definitely influenced my writing. I think he makes me want to write about death in a bigger way. There’s part of my writing that’s just about how a body cremates in American crematories, and how it’s set up and how the bureaucracy is set up, and I think that’s really valuable and really interesting for people to hear about. But there’s also a much, much, much broader view that you can take, which says that the way that we dispose of our dead and the way that we fear or do not fear death defines our society and defines our interaction and defines our future. And I think a lot of that more ambitious sense of my writing comes from Becker.
There are so many wonderful quotables from the book. You can quote it endlessly, but I think the one phrase that I really remember is him quoting William James at just the right time, and saying that death is the worm at the core of our happiness in our lives. So, no matter how happy … another phrase he uses is “The skull will always grin at the banquet.” So no matter how happy we are, no matter how engaged with our lives we are, the fact that we’re going to die is always peering its little head out and affecting, sometimes positively sometimes negatively, how we live our lives.
I read ‘The Denial of Death’ all the time. I will say that the first one quarter of the book and the last one quarter of the book are really the best. The middle section gets into a lot of his feelings on psychiatry and depression and anxiety and schizophrenia, which can feel a little dated. But I think that the first section and the last section just about the way that we are all … I call it, the Grim Reaper has his hand up all of our butts puppeting us around. That’s not Becker’s phrase, that’s my puerile phrase, but I think that those sections stand the test of time just elegantly and completely.
Reading ‘The Denial of Death’ definitely sent me down a rabbit hole. His other books are beautiful. He unfortunately died at age 49 of colon cancer, and ‘Denial of Death’ won the Pulitzer prize for non-fiction two months after he died. Which is a little wah-wah, and what’s so funny is that, so Ernest Becker’s thesis basically in this book is that it’s really, really hard for humans who are so individual and so special and can imagine the cosmos and great civilizations, to accept that we are biological sacks of flesh that will eventually die and rot. And this is so offensive to us, so we come up with all of these ways to deny death. One way of that is immortality projects, like something that will last on after your death. And ‘Denial of Death’ really was one of his big immortality projects, and he wins the Pulitzer two months after he dies, which is just so fitting, somehow.
I recommend this book all the time to other people, and it’s not, I mean, it’s not the easiest book to recommend because it’s so rich and so powerful, but it’s not a fun or easy read. So some people, it could sort of send you into a wee bit of an existential crisis. It certainly did for me. I really encourage all humans to read it, but you know, maybe don’t take it for a beach read.
‘The Denial of Death’ definitely fits into my overall reading life, especially when I’m working on a bigger project. It’s always really helpful for me to go back to the lessons in it. So for example, it’s wildly relevant to today. It was written in the early ’70s but it’s still wildly relevant. So I was thinking recently about those who join the alt-right, for example. They’re disenfranchised, they’re white men for whom this increasing push towards equality feels like oppression. And they’re told that they deserve this hero project, this immortality project. They deserve a job, they deserve a wife, they deserve a family.
And it can feel like women and minority groups are stealing that for them, and their immortality project is taken away from them and they have to find it elsewhere, like on a racist Pepe memes. Whenever you read Becker, you can come back to this idea of immortality projects, and you start to see it everywhere. You see how people use religion to live on forever, how they use culture, how they use building of buildings or a company, how they use their children and live on through their children, and how it manifests in bad things like war when peoples’ different immortality projects conflict. And it’s almost like, once you read this book you cannot look at the world without the lens of this book.
You know, I don’t know that I ever turn off the ‘Denial of Death’ filter. I don’t read a lot … the fiction that I read tends to be very light, like you know fiction for YA or romance or some sort of very light. I’m much more of a non-fiction reader. I think that’s just because I think that truth is stranger than fiction in many ways. No disrespect to fiction. There’s many people who create amazing work through that way, and there’s ways to explain death through fiction that can be much more powerful than non-fiction. But I think that just being able to see everyone at work and the way that their own immortality projects are playing out in the real world is a source of endless fascination for me.
Even before reading this ‘Denial of Death’ I had always had the sense that death was in everything, and then it was pushing culture, but I didn’t really have the words to express it or the framework to express it, and Becker really gave me that, and it makes the work I do now, talking publicly about death, so much easier because I do have this central core of belief that what I’m doing is really important and that talking about death makes you a much more self-aware person. So having that on my side is really helpful as an advocate.
Thanks again to Caitlin Doughty for joining us and recommending The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. Her book From Here to Eternity, published by W.W. Norton, is available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on twitter at thegooddeath.
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USA Today-bestselling author Sherry Thomas decided that her goal in life is to write every kind of book that she enjoys reading. Thus far she has published romance, fantasy, mystery, and a wuxia-inspired duology. Her books regularly receive starred reviews and best-of-the-year honors from trade publications, including such outlets as the New York Times and National Public Radio. She is also a two-time winner of Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA® Award. The third novel in her Lady Sherlock series, The Hollow of Fear, will be released on October 2nd of this year.
Hi, I am Sherry Thomas. And Legends of the Condor Heroes is my recommended.
Well, it is a coming of age story. It is about a young man who is born slightly dumb, I guess. At least everybody thinks he’s kind of slow in learning. And he’s a very sincere but not terribly smart kind. And through a series of extraordinary events, many of which happen before he was born, he was caught up in this rivalry that required him to become a martial artist.
And on his way to becoming a martial artist, he meets many extraordinary people and meets an extraordinarily beautiful, extraordinarily smart girl who is like this opposite in every way but they fit together so well.
And this whole thing is set around the complex political backdrop of the Mongol invasion of China. This is near the end of the Song dynasty. Genghis Khan is on the move. And he is actually raised with Genghis Khan’s kids.
And so this all about a test of loyalties. So who is he going to side with? And what will you sacrifice for love, what will you sacrifice for duty. And the pursuit of the highest forms of martial arts. Who will get their hands on this legendary book of martial arts that will supposedly give the possessor of the book unlimited powers and so on and so forth?
It’s got every trope. It’s got every kind of character and it’s vividly written.
It’s a classic in Asia. It is pretty much known by everybody. Well, maybe not someone like my mom who doesn’t like historicals and who doesn’t like anything with any kind of fantastical element. There’s no real what Europeans consider fantastical element. But she likes daily life things.
But if you go to China, almost everybody will have heard of this book. Will have either read it or seen a TV adaptation.
I first saw the Hong Kong 1984 adaptation when I was around 10 years old. And it took my city by storm. All my friends, we were all talking about it. We were all acting it out and we were all just like glued to the TV come Friday night.
We knew where the books were to be found in the sense that when I was growing up, China was a very different place from what it is today. We had so much less of everything.
So if you go into a book store, the selections are also kind of paltry. And you have to wait behind the counter for someone to actually get the book and give it to you. We didn’t even have the open shelf kind of bookstores yet.
So, bookstores didn’t carry those. Or if they did, I couldn’t afford it. But what I could afford was to rent this book. We had book rentals then. No libraries. But there would be these old men who had these little stalls in parks. They would lay out these books on the ground on top of like a big piece of cloth, a large piece of paper. And you need to put down some deposit and then you could rent each title for $0.30 a day.
And these are big books. It’s four volumes. And so it would cost me basically $1.20 to rent them. And I was a fast reader so I would read them overnight, go back for the next volume.
Actually, my grandmother was opposed to me reading these kind of books. She watched TV, too, because she liked to watch TV. But she was opposed to me reading these kind of books. She was afraid it would affect my studies at school. So what we would do is outside our front door, there’s a fire extinguisher hanging on the wall. And I would put it under the fire extinguisher and the weight of the fire extinguisher would hold it against the wall.
So, I would go home that way. And then when she wasn’t looking, I would slip out and bring the book inside. So it was like lots of cloak and dagger stuff to read a martial art epic.
I have reread it probably more than once because very often university libraries would have them. You can find them in university libraries. And also, I had my friends buy me a set.
I think one time my friends went back home. Some friends who were in China when I was young, they came to the states. And when they went back home, they all said, “Do you want me to bring you back anything?” I said, “Yeah, bring me back a set of Legends of the Condor Heroes.” And they did.
I feel like Chinese is a more difficult language to translate into European languages at least, I think, than the other way around. I’m not sure why I feel so.
It’s possible that it’s because I feel like there’s so much history woven in the Chinese language. And it’s a denser language. It is a language that relies a lot on idiomatic usage that’s inexplicably bound up with history, and literature, and everything else. And so, to know the Chinese language is to know a lot of history.
Also, this is actually not a poetry heavy book but, if a book in which a lot of poems are quoted … that happens sometimes … or there are a lot of poetry being written in the course of the novel as it is the case of Dream of the Red Pavilion, which is a major Chinese classic. It is really difficult to translate Chinese poetry into English, just because the language is perfect for poetry and it’s so much denser.
And I feel like I’ve never seen English translation that perfectly captures Chinese. But I feel like sometimes the Chinese translation of the English language is okay. It’s not bad.
So, there may be that. Or there may be just this is so big, there’s such a huge story, and also so genre. And there’s so much history in there so that you’re not only reading a big story in a genre that most people are not familiar with, but you are also with a lot of history with a lot of Chinese values in there. So this book is hugely Chinese in identity. So I just don’t know how the translation of that would come across.
I think very briefly when I was in fifth grade I thought I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know that I wanted to write this kind of book because that was the only one I read. I thought I wanted to write children’s books because at that point that was mostly what I was reading, children’s literature.
And then, I think I tried my hand at writing a bit and found out I cannot go on after writing the opening page. So, I was like, “Oh, well. I guess I’ll have to concentrate on my studies and just be whatever the country wants me to be then.”
Yeah. It was one of those things that later happened quite by accident. I didn’t mean to become a writer. All throughout my teens and my early 20’s I had no thought at all. I didn’t take any creative writing or anything like that.
But once you do become a writer, then all the books that you have ever read, everything that’s ever influenced you started coming into play.
I have written a duology called The Heart of Blade. And it focuses on a young girl who grows up who is like the daughter of a courtesan and an English adventurer, and she grows up in the household of this important Mandarin prince. But she’s like nobody there. And she learns martial art from her nanny, basically, who just happens to be a martial art expert who’s like on the run, which is of course just the thing to have in a martial arts epic.
And I don’t know that I was influenced directly by Legends of the Condor Heroes in these books because Legends of the Condor Heroes, although wonderful, is also kind of old fashioned in which everything is kind of black and white. It’s very clear. Who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s good, who’s bad. It’s kind of very, very clear.
I think that’s why also people love it because it’s so easy to identify with the hero and so easy to hate his enemies, and so on and so forth. But I think by the time we were growing up … and I think even in his later books … it becomes slightly more areas of gray.
But the influence is there. The love of the genre, definitely he planted in me. And I am writing a Mulan adaptation now for Lee & Low Publishers. And, of course, the first thing I said to myself was, “What kind of girl would dare go to the front lines by herself?” I was like, “She’s a martial artist.”
So, it’s just that the love of the genre is there so much so as soon as you come into anything martial arts adjacent, you’re like, “Yes, this is what I’m going to do.”
So, yes, it did influence me. And it did instill in me this love of scale so that when I encountered Lord of the Rings I was like, yes, that is something I could love because it does have that scale also. Has that historical background in the sense that, even though the historical background is all made up, you feel like you’re living there in that era with those people and with all their problems.
I’ve always felt like Lord of the Rings is the most Chinese book I have ever read in the English language in the sense that it’s obsessed with the passage of time. It’s obsessed with changes wrought by the mere passage of time.
Sometimes I think, heck, it’s the only theme in Chinese poetry. It’s just all about time passing and things changing, whether you want them to or not.
Thanks again to Sherry Thomas for joining us and recommending The Legends of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong, ak.a. Louis Chan. The second book in the Lady Sherlock series, A Conspiracy in Belgravia, published by Penguin, is available wherever books are sold. Keep an eye out for #3, The Hollow of Fear, this October. You can follow her on Twitter at sherrythomas.
Next week on Recommended, one author discusses a favorite classic:
It’s one of those books that, because it’s a classic, and a Newbery winner, but it was in the 1970s, I feel like it’s sort of been forgotten, in a way, which is sad because it’s … Like I said before, it’s so relevant to today. I was reading it, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is still relevant today. This is still happening.”
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