Books on the meaning of life, examined through death

Bryan Stevenson's memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption and Paul Kalanithi’s posthumously published memoir When Breath Becomes Air both explore life's meaning through the perspective of those preparing for death.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is an unrelenting onslaught of heartbreaking individual stories

The horror at the heart of Bryan Stevenson's memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is both epic and intimate. But more importantly, so is the hope. 

The horror at the heart of Bryan Stevenson's memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is both epic and intimate. But more importantly, so is the hope. (

Stevenson is a lawyer who works with the most broken, vulnerable people in the prison system.  He works to get the wrongfully convicted off death row, to help children sentenced to life in prison, to be a voice for the mentally challenged, the poor and those crushed by a racist, privileged system.

The book centres on Walter McMillian, who is wrongfully sentenced to die for the murder of a white woman — a murder he did not commit.  The investigation and trial are so racist and corrupt it would be laughable if not so horrifying. He spends six years on death row. 

The book is an unrelenting onslaught of heartbreaking individual stories.  Stevenson's strong, clear and conversational writing allows readers to really connect with these prisoners on a very human level.  Each case is treated with dignity without an ounce of false sentimentality.

But the collective whole of this book is more powerful than the personal stories.  Stevenson is not lashing out at a nameless or faceless enemy.  He very clearly lays out how individual acts of racism, hatred and ignorance combine with deliberate legal and legislative decisions to create a massively unjust system.

The book spans almost three decades, and the work takes a huge toll on Stevenson.

Jimmy Dill was an intellectually disabled man who couldn't afford a decent lawyer and was sent to death row. Stevenson's efforts to save him fail, and he spends the last half hour of Dill's life on the phone with him, comforting Dill before he is executed.

The thought of all the people rejoicing in this man's death breaks him.   But Stevenson realizes it is our very brokenness that connects us as humans:

"..embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can't otherwise see; you hear things you can't otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us."

The real power of this book lies in the fact Stevenson believes we are all broken and deserving of mercy.  And he learned this from a man who woke up every morning for six years knowing he was going to die, and who was able to forgive and feel "just mercy" for those who deliberately put him on death row knowing he was an innocent man.

In Paul Kalanithi's posthumously published memoir When Breath Becomes Air, he is also facing a death sentence.  The 36-year old neurosurgeon was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer while just at the start of a brilliant career.

Kalanithi was not only a brain surgeon, he was also an English major and a philosopher.  He spent his academic career examining the meaning of life from moral, biological, philosophical and literary perspectives. 

As a neurosurgeon he saved lives, and dealt with patients dying of brain cancers and tumours: "I had started in this career, in part, to pursue death: to grasp it, uncloak it, and see it eye-to-eye, unblinking. Neurosurgery attracted me as much for its intertwining of brain and consciousness as for it intertwining of life and death."

But the massive tumours on his own lungs yanked him out of the abstract to face the very real question of what gives his own life value in the face of imminent death?

This book is not an intimate diary of a dying man.  We learn the most about Kalanithi's personality in his wife's epilogue where she talks of his compassion and humour.  Kalanithi does not share that side with readers.  This is, at heart, a philosophical book.

He was a poetic and well-read writer who beautifully articulated his inner struggle to find meaning in his life, and in his death.