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Review – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

I’m reluctant to review this book, not because it was bad, on the contrary, it was excellent, but because after reading this book, I was saddened to realize how many words I waste, and I fear I will not do this book justice. Let me explain.

(From the editor) In December 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, the 43-year-old editor of French Elle, suffered a massive stroke that left him completely and permanently paralyzed, a victim of “locked in syndrome.” Once known for his gregariousness and wit, Bauby now finds himself imprisoned in an inert body, able to communicate only by blinking his left eye.

Bauby, in explaining how he composed the chapters, states, “In my head I churn over every sentence ten times, delete a word, add an adjective, and learn my text by heart, paragraph by paragraph.” I felt that something so small as how many words you use when expressing yourself is not normally something you think could be ripped away from you, taken as quickly as your ability to walk and feed yourself. At only 131 pages, each chapter, each page, each sentence packs a visual punch. No word is superfluous, in stark contrast to my often rambling and quasi-coherent writing.

Bauby is simultaneously poignant, heartbreaking, and funny. For example, while talking about being with his children at the beach for an afternoon (after his stroke), what he laments is his inability to convey humor: “But my communication system disqualifies repartee: the keenest rapier grows dull and falls flat when it takes several minutes to thrust it home. By the time you strike, even you no longer understand what had seemed so witty before you started to dictate it, letter by letter. So the rule is to avoid impulsive sallies. It deprives conversation of its sparkle, all those gems you bat back and forth like a ball – and I count this forced lack of humor one of the great drawbacks of my condition.”

An integral message, though mentioned briefly, was “…regret for a vanished past, and above all, remorse for lost opportunities….Today it seems to me that my whole life was nothing but a string of those small near misses: a race whose result we know beforehand but in which we fail to bet on the winner.” This reminded me of a quote I got out of Reader’s Digest:

If you do something that turns out wrong, you can almost always put it right, get over it, learn from it, or at least deny it. But once you’ve missed out on something, it’s gone. There will be the girl you never got to say the right words to, the band you never got to see live, the winning streak you never got to cheer on, the brilliant retiring professor whose class you never took, the relative you never got very close with. It’s a long list no matter what. Try to keep it as short as possible.

-Gordon Drizschilo, University of Pennsylvania Daily Pennsylvanian

If I gleaned any wisdom from this book, it was this: Don’t waste even a moment. With your children, family, eating food, trying something new. You never know what moment will be your last. That reminds me of one final quote that I’ll leave you with:

A professor was invited to speak at a military base and was met at the airport by an unforgettable soldier named Ralph. As they headed toward the baggage claim area, Ralph kept disappearing: once to help an older woman with her suitcase; once to lift two toddlers so they could see Santa Claus; and again to give someone directions. Each time he came back smiling.

“Where did you learn to live like that?” the professor asked.

“During the war,” said Ralph. Then he told the professor about Vietnam. His job was to clear minefields, and he saw friends meet untimely ends, one after another, before his eys.

“I learned to live between steps,” he said. “I never knew whether the next one would be my last, so I had to get everything I could out of that moment between picking up my foot and putting it down again. Every step felt like a whole new world.”

-Barbara Brown Taylor, Leadership

Edited to add: Rating: 90 out of 100

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3 Responses to “Review – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”

  1. lisamm

    What an excellent review. I have to read this book. Thanks, Trish.


  2. bkclubcare

    Yes, excellent EXCELLENT review. I want to read this!


  3. trish

    I’m glad my review makes you want to read it. 😀


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