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5 People Faced Death. Here's the Books They Want You to Read Before You Die.
A very, very special edition of Discovery Magazine
Ok, so—what’s going on?
During the bulk of 2021, I did something strange.
I tried to go out and find people who were dying.
Or had died.
Or had faced death.
And it meant that I was calling nursing homes, getting rejected, having people not call me back, hours and hours of phone calls—them telling me in excruciating detail what happened—and me, getting it all down, writing it up, or—to be more accurate—recording it, then writing it, then making it into something that makes sense.
A Top Gun RIO who's plane went straight into the Indian Ocean.
A woman who’s car went 60 mph and hit someone else, front on.
A man who froze to death in the mountains—and came back to talk about it.
I met people from all over the country—hours of dead ends, me trying to talk to people who were dying but didn’t want to because, understandably, why on earth would they do that—and I got them to answer one question:
What’s the one book that you’d reccomend everyone should read before they—
Get stuck on a desert island?
And they all had answers. Some books moved them. Some books changed them. Some books took their hearts and turned it inside out.
And some books—well, at least for one or two—some books were just fun.
These are the books from strangers you didn’t know with stories you’ve never heard of with near-death-experiences you won’t quite believe (seriously—it gets nuts) and the list—the list—is the books you need to read before you die.
Not from me.
But from them.
And because you’re on this newsletter, I’ll throw in my own book recommendation, near-death experience withholding.
Let’s get to it.
P.S. Discovery is now Discovery Magazine (surprise surprise) and is now a Substack. More on this below.
Quotes have been edited for clarity and readability.
1. Ulysses, by James Joyce—recommended by Peter Panagore (who froze to death in the mountains and met God)
Peter Panagore, author of Heaven is Beautiful, froze to death in the mountains. He froze to death in the mountains.
I’ll say it a third time: Peter Panagore, author of Heaven is Beautiful, froze to death in the mountains.
But the strangest part—the part you won’t believe, the part that makes no sense—is that after he died (I know, I know) he saw something where language doesn’t exist to describe what he saw.
But he gave it a shot: he said he saw a “darkness spread into infinity” (hard, I know), then an intelligence (which he calls an “angel”)
He had a Near-Death Experience—NDE for short—which is a series of psychedelic, almost spiritual experiences that many, many, many, many, many people report after dying and coming back (and if you want to have your mind fold into a pizza calzone, just Google “near-death experience” and report back to me.)
And after he came back to life (this is getting strange, but stick with me) he didn’t tell people because, to be frank, it sounded so fucking ridiculous.
“I kept my mouth shut for decades,” he told me.
When I swiftly switched to the topic I’d really wanted to ask him about, he told me the book everyone should read before they die was—yes—Ulysses, by James Joyce.
Before you start rolling your eyes—
“I tried to read it three times, and I could not,” Peter said to 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."
“There's this place in the novel,” Peter’s telling me, “That goes on for like pages and chapters of this incomprehensible—what seems to be—babble that's being spilled on the pages….And yet it goes on and on and on and on.”
“In a paragraph—all of that meeting was explained in an instant, and then all of the previous babble turned into not-babble….”
And basically, what I realized mid-phone conversation: the book was beautiful because it wasn’t just another book. It was a build-up—it was building up to this paragraph where everything that didn’t make sense, everything that didn’t seem comprehensible, suddenly—like a key—made sense. The instant of revelation falls on you all at one, like a mudslide, and you’re out on the other end like you’re Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood and you’re having a religious epiphany (“I’ve abandoned my child!”)
I asked him how the book made him feel:
“It made me feel like I'm never going to be the greatest writer there ever was, for one thing,” he said to me. “But it made me feel like art—the literary arts—are a high form of human communication that imparts beauty and humor, 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. The Once and Future King, by T.H. White—recommended by Dave “Bio” Baranek (a Top Gun RIO who’s plane went straight into the Indian Ocean)
Dave Bio Baranek (author of Topgun RIO) is the guy kids dreams of being—and I mean that in complete sincerity.
Because Dave was a TOPGUN RIO (using all caps here, sue me)—think Goose from Top Gun—and he was flying an F-14 Tomcat fighter squadron when December 9th, 1981 came out of nowhere and hit him straight in the face.
Basically: a series of complicated events I’m too lazy to explain, a steel cable snapping loose being the beginning of the misery, and all of a sudden Dave is crashing into the Indian Ocean.
It’s pure training, pure survival, pure “holy-shit” time distortion until they get out of the plane, narrowly survive.
Of course, when I switched gears, he made it 100% clear that the book he chose had nothing to do with his experience:
“The Once and Future King by T.H. White,” he told me on the Zoom call—a book he’s read multiple times.
“Now, I’ve got to qualify this,” he said. “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.”
There was a deeper reason the story resonated with him so strongly:
“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 it shows these people who are just the most incredible people—and yet they have to deal with the the drudgery and tragedy of human nature.”
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3. A Gentlemen in Moscow, by Amor Towles—recommended by Nayano Taylor-Neumann (moved from Australia to the United States after facing her mortality)
Nayano Taylor-Neumann—author of the Unboring Histories series—was diagnosed with a critical lung disorder.
She was on permanent oxygen supplementation (aware of death) and it gave her the philosophical jolt to change her life: she moved from Australia to the United States—something she’d wanted to do forever, but didn’t, because, you know, life.
When I asked her about the book:
“I found that an impossible question to choose just one book when you frame it like that,” she told me on the phone. I think I was internally amused.
“But when I reframed it for myself saying what book can I really remember pleasing me,” she said. “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,” she said. “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….”
And one of the interesting things I started thinking about after she said this: how different narrative elements (like plot, character development, etc.) are usually all present in a good book.
But in some books and movies, you can really, really, really lean on one—just one—to make something worthwhile.
The sense I got: Count Rostov was so entrancing and interesting and fun to watch that just the energy of his personality and his amusement at the world was what carried the novel itself—and I thought it was cool that she hyper-focused on that, took that element out of the others and laid it bare.
“Delight is all a creation of your own consciousness,” she’s now telling me.
Apparently, Count Rostov has something to teach us.
“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. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky—recommended by Tricia Barker (in a head-on collision at 60 miles per hour)
Before our phone call, before being featured in National Geographic, before writing her book (Angels in the OR), Tricia Barker was waiting tables in college. She stayed up late. She rushed to a race in Austin.
And suddenly it happened—she found herself in the middle of a head-on collision (both parties going 60 miles per hour), blood everywhere, and realizing—as cars passed her by—she might die on the road.
Eventually, help came, she got to an operating table, and then—oops—she died.
And when she died, something happened:
She saw her body float out of the room
She saw memories and moments of her life in quick succession
She saw family members
And she felt a field of healing love she’d never encountered before
Absent father, mentally ill and abusive mother growing up, she had a tough childhood.
"That’s why I love your project,” she told me. “Because I lost myself in books. And that was my escape.”
When I asked her what book everyone should read before they died, she chose a book that left a deeply philosophical imprint on her life:
"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,” she told me.
“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.”
Really liked that last bit.
5. Spiritwalker by Hank Wesselman—recommended by Jose Hernandez (suffocated in the hospital after an allergic reaction)
After breaking all the ribs in his right side, something happened.
Jose Hernandez—who was, strangely and crazily, featured in the first episode of the Netflix Docuseries ‘Surviving Death’ (and is also the creator of the Ascension Art series) took ibuprofen.
Then an allergic reaction, then difficulty breathing, then he goes to the hospital, and now all of a sudden he’s suffocating and having a near-death experience. He:
Feels himself leave his body
Sees a flurry of memories from his life
And meets—in this space—his dead father
At least that’s what he tells me, but the way he’s saying it—we’re on the phone and we’re knee deep in his story—I can feel that the experience is still indelibly visceral for him. And meeting his dead father wasn’t just a quick apparition—it had an incredibly profound emotional impact on him that still continues to this day.
So when I asked him about his favorite fiction book—surprise surprise—it actually tied deeply with his experience:
“There is a book called Spirit Walker…,” he’s telling me. “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.”
6. Bonus: Family Life by Akhil Sharma—recommended by me, Mohnish Soundararajan
No near-death experience to tell you about—beside maybe almost getting hit by a car in 1st or 2nd or who-knows-what grade—but this novel absolutely fucked me up.
And I loved it.
It’s why we read—to have a real, real experience.
And I can’t recommend it enough, because when I recommend, I try to do something: I try to find the books that move me, the books that surprise me, the books that actually do something to you.
From there, it’s easy to cheerlead the book until I’m blue in the face.
But Family Life was so good because it reminded me about the beauty—the internal beauty—of narrative, of novels, of storytelling.
To be frank: I wasn’t sure why Family Life worked because it broke all the rules.
There’s a rich sense of sensory detail that’s entirely missing (it’s a lot of dialogue and people doing things, but that’s it—no touch, no smell, not too much of the sensory detail you associate with novels) and the plot itself is, in a sense, plotless.
There’s no narrative aim to the plot, no “objective” that drives the plot—it’s just a series of events that, due to the beginning, almost have the illusion of plot, of forward momentum, but in actuality, it’s just a series of chronological vignettes of a life defined (and pulled together) by a single tragedy.
But the reason I loved the book was that—through that tragedy—the book expresses the ineffable: what it’s like to be human, to be inside of life itself. The book is honest to a fault—so honest you’re not even sure how it made it on the page—and afterwards, you’ll have the feeling that you’ve lived an entire life (someone else’s life) and feel deflated (but in a kind of good way).
The book elevates the everyday—the little things, the love, the gestures, the complication of family dynamics—and makes it beautiful. And it just sweeps over you. The book, as the author intended, moves “like a rocket”. It’s fast, it’s furious, it’s beautiful, it’s tender, it’s gorgeous, and it’s a masterpiece.
Check it out.
Before you die, preferably.
That’s—yeah, that’s it.
Depressing, I know. You’re at the end of this email, but a few housekeeping, random surprises for you:
This email newsletter, now called Discovery Magazine (because, you know—magazine) is a Substack. For the uninitiated, it means you can comment, love, share, and do a lot of interesting things that normal email newsletters can’t do. So there’s that. There you go. For example, go here. Wow.
And the last thing—if you think this would be interesting, I’m looking to get the word out for this particular book list, because it took way too much time to compile, and also, mostly, because I think it’s neat and cool and would be a lovely way to spread the newsletter. If you know anyone—even someone you’re not even sure could help out—just let me know. You can reply to this email. I won’t bite. Or I’ll try not too.
And again—thanks for being apart of this. You’re amazing, you’re lovely, and thank you, thank you, thank you for subscribing.
More random, fun stuff to come soon.