Book review: Lincoln in the Bardo

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Two stars.

Picked up this book because my online community of friends raved about it. I like trying new genres, stretching to see if my mind can appreciate new ideas, new styles.

I listened to this on audible.com (highly recommended, btw: all those morning commute blues evaporate in the listening). In reading books about how our minds work and how to build resilience, it seems that letting our minds wander results in predominantly negative thoughts, unlike a mind focused on a challenging task.

The blurb about the book was promising: fiction, told from many first person perspectives, about President Lincoln, grieving for his young son, who perished from pneumonia. The twist is that on the Audible version, over 30 narrators supply the many voices, some from accurate historical accounts, some from souls stuck in purgatorial-never-land, as they observe the President’s grief and glimpse his thoughts.

The first clue as to how much like liked the book was in how I gradually accelerated the playback, first at 1.0x speed, for books I enjoy, to 1.25 and eventually landing on 1.5, hoping to be done sooner.

I tried. The unmistakable voice and cadence of David Sedaris pops up, and is entertaining, but is insufficient to hold my interest. It IS an interesting perspective on an inflection point in our country’s history, told in a very personal (and somewhat zombified way?!). Lots of folks liked it, it just wasn’t for me.

CMIO’s take? The literary technique, when a purgatorial ghost can temporarily inhabit the body of a living person and hence hear his/her thoughts is a delightful and clever illustration of empathy. And empathy is how all informatics gets done.

Author: CT Lin

CMIO, University of Colorado Health; Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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