Books about cancer and grief

For various reasons, I’ve been reading a few books that touch, in different ways, on cancer and grief. I’m collecting these together in the hope they may be useful for others who, like me to some extent, learn by reading about others’ experiences and reflections.

When breath becomes air is a powerful book, a reflection on life and death by a surgeon who became a patient. Well worth it.

The year of magical thinking is the account of someone left behind, someone grieving after the death of long beloved family members. It is honest, and raw, and does not settle for easy answers.

Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens, is one I read a while ago, so it’s faded a little from memory. What I remember though is the courage  with which he bore down on the concrete expression of his convictions.

Hope beyond cure is a book written by David McDonald, on his experience with lung cancer. It wasn’t a book I expected to appreciate, but I was glad I’d read it.

Because of the way things are, there’ll be a few other books I’ll add to this list when I finish them.

When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi was a very talented surgeon, a brilliant scientist, an exquisite writer and by the account of those who loved him, a warm, caring person.

His book, When Breath Becomes Air, is an exceptional one. It is an account of his experience as a talented neurosurgeon at the top of his field, ready to reap the rewards of years of study, when he discovers that he has stage IV lung cancer.

It is not an easy read. It is an honestly written book though. He does not shy away from the day to day pain, or the overarching terrors. Nor does he seek false comfort in the easy answers. Instead he simply recounts his own thinking through, his own struggles as he deals with his approaching death. I found that I had to pause often reading it, particularly in the afterward written by his wife, that recounts his final days. It is not an easy read.

But the easy is not necessarily the good. This is a book worth reading.

If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?

… as I sat there, I realized that the questions intersecting life, death, and meaning, questions that all people face at some point, usually arise in a medical context. In the actual situations where one encounters these questions, it becomes a necessarily philosophical and biological exercise.

You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.

Severe illness wasn’t life-altering, it was life-shattering. It felt less like an epiphany-a piercing burst of light, illuminating What Really Matters-and more like someone had just firebombed the path forward. Now I would have to work around it.

My carefully planned and hard-won future no longer existed. Death, so familiar to me in my work, was now paying a personal visit. Here we were, finally face-to-face, and yet nothing about it seemed recognizable. Standing at the crossroads where I should have been able to see and follow the footprints of the countless patients I had treated over the years, I saw instead only a blank, a harsh, vacant, gleaming white desert, as if a sandstorm had erased all trace of familiarity.

Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.

I had passed from the subject to the direct object of every sentence of my life.

The curse of cancer created a strange and strained existence, challenging me to be neither blind to, nor bound by, deaths’ approach. Even when the cancer was in retreat, it cast long shadows.

There we were, doctor and patient, in a relationship that sometimes carries a magisterial air and other times, like now, was no more, and no less, than two people huddled together, as one faces the abyss. Doctors, it turns out, need hope, too.

Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult – sometimes almost impossible – they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love.

Murdoch’s Pirates

Murdoch’s Pirates is a fascinating read. It tells a story about a company that was owned by News Corp, that may have hacked key pieces of technology produced by its competitors, in direct corporate espionage.

It’s always interesting with books like this, to wonder how close they came, or didn’t come, to a lawsuit. The fact that Murdoch’s Pirates is still available on Amazon at the time of writing makes me think that it managed to go relatively unscathed; it’s easy to imagine that if it had been worth bringing a lawsuit, it might have been shut down.

I’ll close with a quote – see if you can spot the sentence the lawyers put in:

Taken together, the controversies at NDS, News International and News America Marketing paint a pattern of failed accountability within large segments of News Corporation. That suggests part of the problem lies with directors and senior management. But fixing a sick management culture requires more than shutting down newspapers or shredding troubled business units. This is the underlying problem presented by the split of News Corporation. Good NewsCo and Bad NewsCo will be run by executives and board members whose actions or lack of action were instrumental in creating the management culture that allowed the scandals of the last decade and a half to develop.

Chase Carey, who will run the dominant entertainment arm under Murdoch, was the News executive given the task of overseeing NDS. Chief financial officer David DeVoe, former group counsel Arthur Siskind, and James and Lachlan Murdoch have all been directors of NDS. There is no suggestion that they were aware of any of the actions of the Operational Security team. Rather, the question is whether they should have been aware.

Lies, Incorporated

Lies, Incorporated: The World of Post-Truth Politicsby Ari Rabin-Havt and Media Matters is an interesting book. I’ve been reading a few books on media recently (including The Attention Merchants and Rupert Murdoch). I’d hoped that Lies Incorporated would be an insight into the relationship between other forms of power and media.

To some extent it is. It talks about how particular groups can use think-tanks and other organisation to influence public debate, through the media and other channels.

Unfortunately, though, the book isn’t a deep dive into the theory, or framework of how that might work. Instead it steps through individual case studies, one by one. Tragically, these are all so similar that the repetition doesn’t engender deeper understanding.

There are some interesting anecdotes though. This is interesting if you’re researching one of the particular topics, and it has a particular depth on smoking, but otherwise this isn’t one I’d recommend.

… in 1935, during “the last two weeks of June”, a flood of eight hundred thousand “letters and wires heaped up in congressional offices.” This would have been an impressive display of public interest in the issue, except the messages were fake. After receiving hundreds of messages, Pennsylvania congressman Denis Driscoll thought they seemed irregular. He replied to several of his constituents only to be told they had not sent him the telegrams.

These fake constitute contacts led to an investigation headed by then Senator and future Supreme Court justice Hugo Black. It found that Western Union had coordinated with Associated Gas and Electric to send the fake messages. Many of the names were taken “from the early pages of the city directory.” Others were acquired by paying “a messenger boy named Elmer” three cents per signature secured for the project.


These letters [from an NAACP Branch, a women’s group and an ageing advocacy group] were forgeries–created by a public affairs firm, Bonner & Associates, which had been subcontracted by the ACCCE. The firm ultimately claimed the fraudulent letters were the work of a rogue employee, who was terminated, and went back to business as usual.  

The Attention Merchants

I really enjoyed Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, so I was excited to read The Attention Merchants. 

Wu’s thesis, if I can paraphrase, is that:

  • It’s useful to think of media we consume on a regular basis, that’s funded by advertising, as being attention merchants: they reap human attention with the product they provide, and then repackage and sell the attention to corporations.
  • Over time, attention merchants have become more effective, and their work has extended into parts of daily life that were previously thought of as separate and apart (the home, the school, and times in the day that were seen as inviolate at one point).

They’re both interesting ideas, and worth unpacking.

What I think the book is lacking, though, is a theoretical framework for attention. It’s surprising, actually – an enormous blindspot. There are odd moments where Wu will refer to particular psychological theories. But given the topic of his book, it would have made a lot more sense to me to start with attention. What is it? What do we mean when we talk about attention? How does our attention to our environment around us, influence our decisions?

These are all good questions, and I think Wu’s book would have benefited from unpacking them. Much in the same way that I think Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order benefits from a clear explanation of the psychological theory underpinning his work.

Without that theoretical framework, Wu’s writing mostly becomes a history of advertising. Which is interesting, but not as deep, and not as useful in understanding what’s happening.

Notes and quotes

What Lippmann took from the war-as he explained in his 1922 classic Public Opinion – was the gap between the true complexity of the world and the narratives the public uses to understand it … When it came to the war, he believed that the “consent” of the governed had been, in his phrase, “manufactured”. Hence, as he wrote, “It is no longer possible … to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify …

Information cannot be acted upon without attention and thus attention capture and information are essential to a functioning market economy, or indeed any competitive process, like an election (unknown candidates do not win) …

… much of the energy formerly devoted to blogs or other online projects was now channeled into upgrading one’s Facebook profile and, with it, the value of Facebook itself. In this way, the public became like renters willingly making extensive improvements to their landlord’s property, even as they were made to look at advertisements. Facebook’s ultimate success lay in this deeply ingenious scheme of attention arbitrage, by which it created a virtual attention plantation …

Rupert Murdoch and All the King’s Men

Rupert Murdoch: An investigation of political power

McKnight’s book reads like something that is very carefully worded, and very carefully referenced. It’s the kind of book you might write about one of the world’s most powerful men if you didn’t want to lose all your money in a lawsuit.

But it’s still an interesting read. It touches the intersection between Murdoch’s business interests, his political focus, and his personality. As this review notes, Murdoch is not an original political thinker.

One thing I found interesting is that while Murdoch’s values may be reasonably consistent (although they have changed at points), he is willing to back politicians on both sides of the aisle (at least in the UK and Australia), which makes him ruthlessly effective.

One thing the book doesn’t really unpack, is the media side of the equation. As a review notes:

… none of the dark stuff would work unless Murdoch ran hugely popular newspapers and television stations. I don’t think McKnight gives due weight to this fundamental source of the old man’s power. Murdoch’s political leverage depends on his uncanny talent for winning and holding the attention of very large numbers of people.

All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren

I came across All the King’s Men in a list of books recommended shortly after Trump’s election. It is the story of Jack Burden, a journalist working for a corrupt, populist politician in the pre-WWII American South.

As his Boss rises, so do Jack’s fortunes; but when fate turns on his boss, he’s forced to confront his own responsibility.

It is, politics aside, a beautiful book. Warren writes beautifully, and it is evocative and powerful. Worth it for the writing alone.

It’s also beautifully structured. We see Burden fall into the pit of despair, both at his Boss’s fortunes, and at his own lack of moral courage. Joseph Campbell can write about heroes killing their fathers; the way Jack Burden does it is particularly striking. But beyond it all, Burden finds a measure of redemption, frail as it is, in taking the right step.

There is some discussion about whether the ‘restored’ version (evergreened, perhaps?) or the original is better. I wasn’t sure whether you could get the original on Kindle, so I bought it from a second hand dealer. I didn’t want to mark up an older copy, so there are no quotes; but believe me that the writing is beautiful.

The Horde (in a comments section)

I’ve long been a fan of TNC (earlier instalments, among others, here and here). It’s nice to read an article on what his comments section did well, and how he did it:

If there’s a lesson to be taken away from the story of the Horde, it might be—depressingly—that trying to build a comment section that truly adds value to a writer’s work will inevitably become more trouble than it’s worth. For years, the Horde gave me hope for a better internet, but these days I tend to believe that comment sections are just tumors on otherwise good journalism, and that we’d all be better off without them.