I don’t have much to say about On Being Ill other than it’s incredibly short and its meanderings in that space cover the spectrum from silly to sentimental. You will spend perhaps 30 minutes reading this book. I heard of it via Tyler Cowen’s breathless recommendation.
It’s hard to block quote such a short flowing text, but I like these next couple passages. Here’s one at the heart of the book: people don’t write about pain much. It’s overlooked by the great writers, and thus we have no words to steal or clichés to rely on:
The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him. He is forced to coin words himself, and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other (as perhaps the people of Babel did in the beginning), so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out.
And I think most can relate to the the perverse sort of joy we take in being sick, reclining, casting off social graces, embracing our misery:
There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional), a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals. About sympathy for example—we can do without it. That illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears that a twitch at one wrist jerks another, where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you—is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable. But in health the genial pretense must be kept up and the effort renewed—to communicate, to civilise, to share, to cultivate the desert, educate the native, to work together by day and by night to sport. In illness this make-believe ceases.