‘Death by Living’ Is All Dressed Up with No Place to Go

Review of Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent by N.D. Wilson

From author N.D. Wilson—he of Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl and an assortment of children’s fiction series—comes Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent, billed as ‘an astoundingly unique book.’ And it certainly is something out of the ordinary, at least based on my interaction with it. I find myself in rather an unusual position: I suspect this book is better than I think it is.

I confess that I am handicapped by my stylistic preferences—preferences that, apparently, do not play well with endless series of clipped sentence fragments. Here are a few more poetic examples of Wilson’s particular style:

Rugged childbirth. Smile. Death by living. Back surgery. Hydrocodone withdrawals. A last-minute and completely farcical road trip from London to Rome with nine young cousins in a van. Death by living. Being robbed in Rome upon arrival. Death by living. Scars, wrinkles, bruises, weariness, grief and joy and exhaustion; we’ve come by it all honestly—by being alive. (Introduction, xi)

Shut your eyes. Inhale slowly. Now hold that breath while your eyes open. Assess your position before you exhale, between your last breath and the next. Start simply. Where are you? On a park bench? A bus seat? The john? In a secondhand archaic armchair in a seventeenth-hand apartment? Where are you exactly on this planet? How many feet above sea level and how many feet below and above the nearest stars? Where are you in time, in history, in the beyond-all-human-comprehension parade of handcrafted matter marching in noise and glory through this thing we call the present moment? (3)

Taste every one of time’s moments. Swallow. Taste the next. Drink the water. Drink the wine. It is no good left in the glass. Sweat and struggle. Run. Fight. Receive. Give. Be grateful even for death, for the ticking clock counting down on you. (114)

You get the idea. The whole book is like that, interspersed with (slightly) more linear anecdotes about N.D. Wilson’s family. Don’t get me wrong: Wilson clearly loves writing, and the man can turn a phrase. But he spends an awful lot of time painting word pictures of … stuff. Which makes it rather difficult to discern what the book is supposed to be about.

I mean, it seems to be about N.D. Wilson, his adventures with his kids, and the impressively full lives of his various grandparents. But there’s a why there—a reason for the book, a point he’s making or a purpose he wants to accomplish by writing it—that I’m not seeing. I think the take-away point is: Live, darn it! Grab life by the horns and wrestle it to the ground! Ride the wave! And other metaphors!

That’s not the only theme present in Death By Living—not by a long shot. For starters, I certainly walked away with the painful awareness that N.D. Wilson has been to way more places than I will ever see—he shares anecdotes from road trips across Europe and business trips to the Holy Land. Also, his family is awesome. But I doubt he wrote the book with the goal of imparting those truths to his readers.

There are some more substantial themes vying with ‘live!’ as the central theme. There’s a lot of business about the narrative nature of life, in a sense that Wilson repeatedly insists is deeper or more meaningful than the ‘life is story’ mantra of the hipsters. Apparently Wilson doesn’t think too highly of hipsters. This is yet another befuddling aspect to the book, as Wilson’s style reminds me of nothing so much as one of those trailers from uber-hipster Rob Bell. You know the ones—full of sentences and fragments and ideas woven together to establish his point (or the question he wants to ask). If I’m being honest, part of my discomfort with the book is probably the result of this marked similarity to such a well-known and deeply troubling author. Fortunately, the similarities between Wilson and Bell begin and end at the stylistic level. As far as I can tell from this work, Wilson definitely has it on Bell in the theology department: what theology there is here seems fine. But I find Bell’s writing disturbing, and it’s difficult to read such a similar style without a certain amount of reflexive discomfort. (Then again, I will say this for Bell: I always know what his take-away point is. As unorthodox and problematic as his conclusions may be, Bell never leaves you wondering what those conclusions are.)

Throughout the book, there is a consistent undercurrent of ‘time marches on’/’life is short’, so it’s not like the book is completely lacking in themes. It’s just a bit of a challenge to weave these thematic strains into a unified whole, a single cohesive Big Idea. At the end of the day, I found myself suspecting that N.D. Wilson was profoundly affected by the stories of his grandparents’ lives, that he really wanted to write about them, and that all the ‘carpe diem’ business is just the hook he’s hanging the stories on. Taken as a series of reflections on his family history, it’s a decent enough book.

In fact, it may be a great book. My own stylistic preferences (and prejudices) have, I suspect, hampered my ability to appreciate it on its own merits. You may love it.


This book was reviewed in connection with the Patheos Book Club.

Alexis Neal regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.

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  • Andrew

    “I suspect this book is better than I think it is.”

    It sounds like “Death By Living” didn’t meet certain expectations you brought to it, but you’re not sure whether it was really fair for you to expect all those things. I think you’d gain much more clarity on the matter if you read C.S. Lewis’s “An Experiment in Criticism.” That book transformed the way I approach and judge literature.