The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death

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A Year in Reading: Claire Cameron

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I have a big head.

My husband used to bet people in bars—back when bars were a fun thing—that my head was bigger than theirs. The stakes for the bet, a beer. I won a lot of free drinks.

Dave is medium-headed, but has lived alongside me for long enough to learn the code. The big-headed tend to have a quiet respect for each other. Once when I met a woman with a big head—this was back when I used to meet new people—I said, “hey, you’re in the big head club.” Without missing a beat, she said, “yes, I’m the treasurer.”

Once a really big-headed man sat near us at a bar and Dave made the bet. The large-headed man hesitated and I watched as he cast all his assumptions aside, sized up my gourd, and made careful calculations. Here’s what I think: He knew what we assumed that he would assume and second guessed himself because he assumed he must be wrong before he decided what to do. And then he guessed right. I lost the bet. It was glorious.

Another man was willing to take the bet with hesitation. His confidence spoke volumes. We knew a free beer was coming my way.

This is one tiny slice of what the pandemic has taken, a bet, a glance, working from intuition, spontaneous laughter with a stranger, feeling close to someone I’ll never see again. I miss the chance to navigate other people and places in the old world, one that was less controlled and contained. I miss watching how people move in patterns, but also how they often surprise. I crave the wildness found in a public place like a bar, the corner store, or the subway.

There are so many things I missed liked this, a breath, an impulse, a laugh, a touch, a big-head stranger. This year I looked for them in books.

I read Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawaz and it blew the slippers off my feet because it’s about a coronavirus pandemic and she started writing in it 2012 and finished it in 2019 and had the foresight to include a lonely cruise ship on the horizon and a run on treadmills, one of my most hotly anticipated reads was Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art by Rebecca Wragg Sykes because it’s non-fiction that brings all the recent breakthroughs in research together and breathes beautiful humanity into our big-headed ancestors, The New Wilderness by Diane Cook was so raw and vital and alive that I wish I wrote it, I picked up Cleanness by Garth Greenwell because I kept seeing the tweets of people who said they had a boner the whole time they were reading it and I wanted to know if it would work for me (yes), I re-read The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch because I yearned for the comfort of her brilliance, Nine Bar Blues by Sheree Renée Thomas had so much rhythm in each sentence that reading the stories felt like going to see live music, I devoured I Hold a Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg and because it held a view of the world that was so perfectly slanted I was reminded that I’m not alone, The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominuque Bauby is another favourite that I re-read because I wanted to take a trip and inhabit someone else’s body, I read How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa and it put words to what I saw during the pandemic in a way that changed my life, and My Abandonment by Peter Rock was the book I picked up and re-read after talking to a man who lives in a tent in a park near my house and I paired it with a re-watch of the near perfect adaption Leave No Trace directed by Debra Granik.

I don’t usually re-read books. I don’t usually like the movies made from the books I love. This year I did.

I’m about to read Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. The anticipation gave me a reason to wake up this morning and during a pandemic. This is no small thing.

I look back at these books and see how they were responsible for helping me get through—they held lives beyond my immediate experience, farther away than the couch, the walls, the house. In a year when there were no random head bets and no bars, I found living, breathing worlds full of sensation, smells, sights, sounds that let me roam far beyond the confines my own skull-sized kingdom. Even though it’s roomy, I really needed out.

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