Fr. Joseph Gallagher taught poetry, philosophy, and literature at John Hopkins University, Notre Dame College, and Loyola College for many years. In the preface to his brilliant work on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, he shares a fascinating story: “Long ago I heard of a man who so loves Shakespeare that he kept one of his masterpieces unread. He wanted to look forward to savoring a fresh marvel on his deathbed… Through the decades that story has haunted me.”
Speaking of haunting, fans of ABC’s hit series Lost will recall that Desmond always carried a hardback edition (held closed by two rubber bands) of Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, the last complete novel written by Dickens before he died (the novel was published in 1865; Dickens died in 1870). The book itself plays a role in key plot twists and the novel shares several narrative elements and themes with the spellbinding show.
Now I know what you’re thinking. If Desmond doesn’t know when he is going to die, how can he know to read the book? A fair question; however, the intent of the question is not what to read before you die by some tragic unpredictable occurrence (like being hit by a bus or being in a plane crash) — of course, that’s impossible. The assumption is that, in old age, Desmond realizes that death is not far beyond the horizon, and that he has some time to get his affairs in order — and read one incredible literary work.
The creators of Lost, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, in turn, got the idea of the “the last book to read before you die” from a New York Times interview with writer and Dickens aficionado John Irving. Irving mentioned that he wanted Our Mutual Friend to be the last book he read before he died.
What will be the book you want to read before you die?
For further reading: Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
Shakespeare’s Sonnets Freshly Phrased by Joseph Gallagher