It’s official: Size does matter. At least it does when it comes to books; and especially when we are talking about books that need to be consumed within a week. I found myself just yesterday afternoon still putting off the March book club mandate of 600+ pages and in an absolute tailspin about what to read this week that was short on pages, high on interest and starting with a letter of the alphabet that I hadn’t yet covered.

Oh boy.

Enter: One bookstore, a perfectly blended chai tea latte, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. At 131 pages, I knew I had hit the knock-it-out-in-one-sitting jackpot. But where the book lacks in length, Bauby more than makes up in heart.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is Bauby’s memoir, painstakingly dictated to a speech therapist through his only means of communication: The blinking of an eye. At 43, Bauby was full of life, living in France and working as the editor of French ELLE magazine. On the way to an event with his teenaged son, Bauby suffered a massive stroke to his brainstem and was left completely paralyzed–only to retain the functions of his brain and left eye. This type of outcome is often referred to as being “locked in” with no ability to communicate, yet complete awareness of one’s surroundings, total cognition in tact. A sort of total confinement–imprisonment for a crime not ever committed.

And yet, Bauby is heroic in his effort to live. He connects with a speech therapist at the hospital who knows he is more than his incapacitated shell. She patiently works with him, and together, they devise a way to communicate with Bauby blinking at letters of the alphabet she shows him. Once realizing this capability, Bauby works with her to document his story painstakingly “written” one letter at a time.

His story, it turns out, is remarkable; especially when you know what he had to go through to tell it. Add to that only the merest traces of self pity or anguish and you have a completely compelling story. Bauby uses the strength of his mind to call up memories of his past (with his children, his work) and imagines a future he know he won’t ever have (lying next to and caressing his girlfriend, experiencing delectable food). Rarely is there anger; sometimes there is sadness. More often than not, Bauby expresses humor, humility and grace sharing the simplest of details that we so often take for granted.

One of these simple details, his love of letters from friends and how they helped him get through the darker days of his recovery, Bauby beautifully wrote:

“I hoard all of those letter like treasure, One day I hope to fasten them end to end in a half-mile streamer, to float in the wind like a banner raised to the glory of friendship.
It will keep the vultures at bay.”
Unfortunately, Bauby won’t have that opportunity. Just two days after his memoir was published, Bauby passed away from heart failure. He was making so much progress in his ability to communicate and connect with others that I found this truly heartbreaking. Despite the sadness, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a worthy read (and as I now understand, a well received movie that I will have to check out). Bauby’s story is both devastatingly simple and overwhelmingly complicated. He provides us a great reminder that we are more than our bodies–that there is so very much to appreciate in this life.

Rating: 5 stars
Pages: 131
Genre: Memoir