Thursday, November 04, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 274 (11/4) -- How Shall I Tell the Dog? by Miles Kington

Impending death provokes many different reactions -- as Dr. Johnson once said, it does concentrate the mind wonderfully. Some go through the usual stages of denial, bargaining, and so forth, while others leap straight to acceptance. Still others spend their time thinking of books they could write about dying.

Miles Kington is in the last category; he was a well-known British humorous writer [1] (of a daily column for the Independent, among many other things) when he learned, in 2007, that he had inoperable pancreatic cancer. On top of his regular work -- he kept up that daily column faithfully; the last one appeared on the day he died, January 30, 2008 -- he began a series of letters to his agent, Gill Coleridge, about the ways he was thinking about "cashing in" on his impending demise. How Shall I Tell the Dog? collects all of those letters -- although it's clear, as an afterword by Kington's widow Caroline states, that the letters were all performances, meant for the public rather than actual private letters to his agent.

Kington seems to steam straight to acceptance -- or, at least, got his other stages out of the way before starting this project -- and points out, several times, that he doesn't like the soppy kind of cancer book and isn't going to write something like that. (And then, usually, slyly asks Gill if there's a lot of money in books like that, because he could possibly be convinced otherwise.)

How Shall I Tell the Dog? is made up of several dozen letters -- most of them around the length of a newspaper column, which should surprise no one -- that don't mention cancer all that much, actually. (Kington knows exactly how funny cancer isn't, and so steers away from it most of the time, except, occasionally, for effect.) Kington is never sorry for himself, or despairing, or morbid -- as he writes in the first letter, "all this miasma of hand-wringing crystallised into one single thought: I did not have as much time left as I thought in which to do all of the important things of life" -- but instead focused on business...though his business is thinking up funny things.

So he runs through his take on the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, thoughts on having new holes put in his belt, clearing out his papers, old friends from Punch, famous last words, funeral (and tombstone) videos, yodeling, and other loosely related topics. It's quite funny, and often unexpectedly touching -- Kington is trying to get on with things in the limited time he has left, and every so often that just becomes too painfully clear.

The list of funny books about death is a short one, and the list of tasteful funny books about death even shorter. In fact, I can't think of another one right now (though I'm sure there must be some). This is a book that it would be entirely appropriate to give to your maiden aunt -- as long as you're absolutely sure of her robust good health, that is. And it also will read best the younger and more healthy the reader is -- to reduce, as much as possible, any hypochondriacal feelings, for one thing -- which means that it behooves you to read it as swiftly as possible, since none of us are ever going to get any younger.

[1] Although almost completely unknown on my side of the pond; the first time I heard his name was in a review of this book, last year.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Damn. I was wondering why I'd not seen anything by him of late.

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