Book Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Book Review

I heard about this book on the Waking Up app. I use it every single day to meditate and reflect. I tend to get up at 5 am, get a cup of coffee, spend some time stretching (yoga) and then meditate for at least 10 mins before I do anything else. I will be writing a post about meditation at a later date, but for now, it is enough to say that I find this time to be some of the most important time of my whole day.

This book was recommended by Sam Harris because it shows how the conscious mind is able to continue even when the body isn’t working correctly at all. Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote the whole thing using just his left eye. A communications/speech expert created a useful alphabet and Mr Bauby blinked to the letter he wanted to use next.

I don’t know much about Jean-Dominique Bauby before his stroke. He worked for a fashion magazine, he has children, he seems to have travelled wildly and lived a fast-paced life.

I am not going to lie; this book was devastating. To see a body reduced to a diving-bell (an old-fashioned diving suit), weighing Jean-Dominique Bauby down is horrifying. Needless to say, the ability for Mr Bauby to express what he was going through and where his mind was with all of this is breathtaking. The butterfly unfolds beautifully throughout this book.

Sure, this book review isn’t about a Christian or Atheist topic as such, but it really grabbed me because it is in fact about our minds and how we deal with situations that are the definition of crippling.

The book is very short, it only took me a couple of hours to read it. I did so as my children ran around me in my lounge. I watched as they played and danced. I repeatedly put it down to chase them, hug them and play with them. I read the book of a man unable to move whilst living my life to the fullest I could at that time. I think this is how we should respond to these sorts of books.

It’s really important to put ourselves within Jean-Dominique Bauby’s shoes (as much as we can), to imagine what we would miss as he expresses the devastation which he experiences from the stroke that rendered him captive within his body. But we must also marvel at the ability of his mind to take the situation and live through it. As is very clear within this book, Mr Bauby is living, he is not waiting to die.

There is also a film based on this book under the same name. I have not watched it. Many of the book reviews seem to be from people who watched the film and then had to read the book. It seems to be a very powerful portrayal of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s story, which I can only imagine is a good thing.

I want to encourage any reader of this blog to pick up a copy of this book, to work through it a chapter at a time and then to address the two major themes it brings up for themselves. The human mind’s ability to adapt and live and the abilities that we take for granted every single day – breathing, laughing, crying, walking and hugging. I would label all these things as living, and essential to living at that. What Jean-Dominique Bauby helped me see is that they aren’t essential, but they are helpful.

“‘Are you there, Jean-Do?’ she asks anxiously over the air. And I have to admit that at times I do not know any more.” Bauby, Jean-Dominique. The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly (p. 49). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Mr Bauby captures the hardships of trying to remain alive, whilst everything is pushing to take it all away each moment. He has his mind, and not a lot else to make it through the next moment.

‘Sunday. I contemplate my books, piled up on the windowsill to constitute a small library: a rather useless one, for today no one will come to read them to me. Seneca, Zola. Chateaubriand and Valéry Larbaud are right there, three feet away, just out of reach. A very black fly settles on my nose. I waggle my head to unseat him. He digs in. Olympic wrestling is child’s play compared to this. Sunday.’ Bauby, Jean-Dominique. The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly (p. 110). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

He lies there, alone, unable to do so much, yet he managed to express so much through such a hard time.

‘There are no words to express it. My condition is monstrous, iniquitous, revolting, horrible. Suddenly I can take no more. Tears well and my throat emits a hoarse rattle that startles Théophile. Don’t be scared, little man, I love you.’ Bauby, Jean-Dominique. The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly (p. 79). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

I can’t imagine this, though of course, I am trying to. Being unable to control how sad I am and how horrible my condition is, to cry out and to scare the one that makes you want to run, laugh and dance. If this was a fictional novel we could see the power of determination push Mr Bauby past his diving-bell and into his old body once again, he would pick up his little boy and together they would laugh, cry and dance.

This is just why this book is so beautiful. It captures moments of beauty amongst hours of horror. Most of the world will never have to experience the horror that Mr Bauby went through, but the fact that he managed to work through so much, to be as light as a butterfly whilst being so weighed down, well that is just incredible.

Mr Bauby died days after his book was published.

_End of Blog Blurb_

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog. It has taken me a few years to get to a place where I am able to share my loss of faith and to start writing about the journey that I am still on for you all. I hope you find it useful.

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Podcast: If you like what you read then you could always check out the podcast ‘When Belief Dies’, it is available on all major podcasting platforms or you can listen/watch via YouTube. I upload and publish via Anchor FM each Wednesday at 7 am. For early access, support me on Patreon.

Grammar, spelling, capitalisation and punctuation: I am massively dyslexic. It has taken me years to get to the level I am currently at with writing and I have done this mainly through reading. I want to be better and ask you, reader, to please forgive any errors in my writing. I hope you notice improvement upon improvement over the coming years.

Time Frame: This blog is roughly twelve to twenty-four months behind where I currently am in my journey out of religion. It’s important to remember that when reading and commenting.

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I’ll see you back here at the same time next week 🙂


Farewell For Now When Belief Dies

It's time to stop, even though it breaks my heart. This episode serves as my reason why.   -Sam
  1. Farewell For Now
  2. When Belief Dies #100 – 'Psychedelics, Philosophy & God' with Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes
  3. When Belief Dies #99 – 'Open and Relational Theology' with Thomas Jay Oord
  4. When Belief Dies #98 – 'The Take Over' with Daniel Kelly & Roger Bretherton
  5. When Belief Dies #97 – 'The End?' with Daniel Kelly

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