If you could read only one more book, and then no others, for the rest of your life, what would your last selection be?
The question comes to mind, indirectly, in Norah Gallagher’s latest book, “Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic,” recently released in a paperback edition by Vintage Books.
Gallagher’s memoir explores her medical odyssey after being diagnosed with an inflamed optic nerve that threatened to leave her permanently blind.
As the book begins, though, Gallagher is in denial about the vague symptoms suggesting that she might be sick. She does a number of things to distract her from the impending health crisis, including a little winter reading.
“I sat down in front of the fire and resumed reading ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hillary Mantel, the last book, as it turned out, I would read for two years,’ Gallagher tells readers. “The last book I have read as I write these words.”
As “Moonlight Sonata” progresses, Gallagher’s eye problem makes sustained reading difficult – at least in the typical way that sighted readers enjoy literature.
And so, by default, “Wolf Hall” becomes a personal landmark for Gallagher, although she certainly didn’t intend it that way.
“Wolf Hall,” a historical novel published in 2009, is a fictional speculation on the court politics behind Henry VIII, the much-married English monarch of the 16th century. The book won the Man Booker Prize and garnered good reviews, although Publishers Weekly, which also had some nice things to say, concluded that Mantel had included “a distracting abundance of dizzying detail.”
What Gallagher doesn’t say, because it’s really not the point of her story, is whether “Wolf Hall” would have been the book she had chosen for the last book she’d read – at least for a very long time.
And who’s to say what any of us select if given such a choice?
But the larger lesson of “Moonlight Sonata,” apparently, is that the simple act of reading – of scanning lines with one’s eyes from page to page – can be an easy thing to take for granted.
Gallagher’s book is a powerful reminder to appreciate books themselves, and for a simple reason: One day, and probably at a time not of our choosing, all of us are going to read our very last book.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”