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  • Writer's pictureSarah Gibbs Underhill

The Deathbed Reading List

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

In Defense of Winnie the Pooh


I’m contemplating reading aloud from beloved children’s books to my dying mother, who is lying quietly in bed, all unsuspecting. She did enjoy hearing the first chapter of “Little House in the Big Woods” a couple of days ago, saying that she had “not heard that since I was a little girl.” This was technically untrue; she had read it to all of us kids multiple times, but she is living in a timeless world right now with her memory shifting in and out of accuracy. But today she is barely waking up, having trouble finding words when she does, and didn’t respond yes or no with a shake or a nod of the head when reading time was offered. I pick up a worn red hardback copy of Winnie the Pooh, undoubtedly the one that was read to us as children. Leafing through it I find that, although I don’t know it well enough to recite it, each phrase comes back to memory as I read it. Winnie the Pooh is not for the cynical. Dorothy Parker, whose wit I otherwise admire, was caustic in her critique of it. Admittedly, the book had been exploited and peddled to the public in what I'm sure was an annoying and cloying way for those not in the mindset for nursery stories. She also wrote an essay in which she cruelly revels in a news story from a New Jersey paper about a young man being bullied and stalked for being effeminate; she was fascinated by the case but by no means condemns it. I was heartsick to hear an account of the teen-aged Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh's beloved human, being mercilessly teased by his peers when they found out he was the innocent child so lovingly, if feyly [word?] portrayed in the classic stories about his collection of stuffed animals. The human foibles of bullying and cruelty trouble me, and anger me, to the point of muttering, "Breathes there a one with soul so dead…."[paraphrase of a nationalistic poem] under my breath. My next annoyed thought is that only those who have been made irretrievably cynical by the age of six months at the hands of a fate which deprives them of the God given birthright of a loving, doting parent who will read Winnie the Pooh aloud to them and enjoy it, would ever be capable of thus tormenting the innocence out of their fellow young humans. Unfortunately, at this point the toxically cynical mindset seems to reign over that of the rest of us, or at least is rewarded and lauded by the fickle, insatiable factory that grinds out the product that is popular culture. I love Winnie the Pooh books, and they are included on the list of literary works scribbled on an envelope that contains my Will and headed: “Books to be read to me on my Deathbed.” Quite likely by that time I will not want to hear any of them, should I ever achieve that idealized state and be blessed with the time and the readers willing to humor me. Whether or not my mother can hear or comprehend the words now, the lulling cadence of a familiar human voice washes over all of us in the room, as her voice reading the same words soothed me as a child. Books, stories, and songs given to me by my original teachers, my parents, have nourished me all my life, and they are standing by like old friends, ready to help usher me out to the Great Beyond.

[Please note that by Winnie the Pooh I mean the original book by A. A. Milne, and not any of the adaptations, Disney versions, or inaccurate co-opting memes that have proliferated under the same title.]

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