Book Review: Death Be Not Proud: A Memoir by John Gunther

Why in the world read a book like this? I don't know for sure. I voted against it when it was presented as a possible book selection for my book club. I didn't want to read a book that could only be mournful and dreary. For some reason though, I was curious about it.

This is the story of Johnny. Johnny was very bright and charismatic. He had been sort of a child prodigy while attending schools both abroad and in the US. He loved science. His goal was to be able to study Chemistry and Physics at Harvard. During his junior year of high school, he developed a few symptoms that sent him to the school infirmary, then to the hospital. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor and even though they operated immediately, medical science in the 1940's was still in it's infancy in this area. Johnny valiantly battled this cancer for fifteen months before death finally took him.

His father, John Gunther, writes this thoughtful memoir, that includes some of Johnny's letters and diary entries during the time of his illness. He does a good job portraying his son as the perfect child ( I don't want to pick too much at this book, but it is a little bit hard to believe in some instances). Johnny either doesn't understand how sick he really is, buries this fact in the far reaches of his mind, or is unbelievably optimistic. He continues to live his life, never letting go of his dreams. His philosophy of life is as follows from his diary:

Gunther Philosophy
1. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you but don't love God with all your heart, mind, soul. To really believe in first you don't need second. Good is an axiom.
2. No immortality.
3. Live while you're living then die and be done with - never refuse challenge - never give up trying etc.
... (pg.202)

I find this way of looking at life very sad. He was a very good person, despite the fact that he did not believe in God. His mother seemed to be trying to help him find something to hold onto, exposing him to all different religions and ways of thinking. Johnny writes his own prayer during this time that he calls an "Unbeliever's Prayer". Maybe he does want to believe?

Almighty God
forgive me for my agnosticism;
For I shall try to keep it gentle, not cynical,
nor a bad influence.

And O!
if thou art truly in the heavens,
accept my gratitude
for all Thy gifts
and I shall try
to fight the good fight. Amen.

I thought this was quite profound for a sixteen year old to write. I wish I could know more about how he felt. Even though there are a number of letters and diary entries, I wasn't able to get to "know" Johnny. I did find this book to be enjoyable to read though. It was not mournful or dreary like I had first thought, instead it left me feeling that life is worth living. We can live courageously even in the worst of circumstances.

My Rating

Overall: 3 stars. Although well written, I didn't feel any real emotion. His father wrote from a distance and Johnny didn't seem real most of the time.

Objectionable Content: none


Kathy December 29, 2009 at 7:10 PM  

I remember reading this book when I was a teenager. For me it was a real tear-jerker. I remember thinking that Johnny was "above and beyond" anybody I ever knew. Almost too good to be true. I did enjoy the book, and little bits of it have stayed with me all these years.

Anonymous December 21, 2010 at 1:44 PM  


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