1. The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby

A note to idlers and procrastinators everywhere: The next time you think you don’t have the energy to “deal,” think of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French writer who wrote his memoir by using only his left eyelid. After suffering a massive stroke at the age of 44, the editor-in-chief of the French edition of Elle awoke to find that his glamorous life as a Parisian man of letters had been erased by “locked-in” syndrome. With his wits still intact but his body useless, Bauby enlisted the help of an assistant and a technique whereby the writer would select each letter of his tome by blinking the lid of his working eye when the assistant had verbally landed on the correct one. A good book, perhaps overshadowed and overwhelmed by the nature of its creation, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly was eventually adapted into a remarkable film in 2007 by director Julian Schnabel, starring Mathieu Amalric as the afflicted yet determined Bauby. (Oh, and Bauby, on top of everything else, died of pneumonia two days after his book was published.) [Gregg LaGambina]


2. “Through The Wire,” Kanye West

The song that arguably put Kanye West on the path to superstardom was originally recorded—his own raps and all—with his jaw wired shut. West had been in a serious car accident a few weeks earlier that would have killed him if it hadn’t been for his seat belt. (“Thank God I ain’t too cool for the safe belt!”) At points in the original version, it’s tough to make out some of the lyrics, so West re-recorded it once he could open his mouth all the way, for The College Dropout. It permanently changed the way West looks, as well as his outlook. [Josh Modell]


3. Mortality, Christopher Hitchens

“I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death,” Christopher Hitchens writes in the opening lines of Mortality, a collection of essays he had periodically submitted to Vanity Fair before succumbing to esophageal cancer in 2011. Hitchens is referring to his oft-boasted and oft-reported lifestyle of booze and cigarettes (and the subsequent history of hangovers) while simultaneously revealing that his wit was unaffected by his diagnosis. In the book, the polemicist and enthusiastic atheist describes the wasting away his body endures during chemotherapy, but his words remain as sharp and carefully chosen as ever. It’s not a stretch to deduce that the composition of this book sustained him, maybe even more than the treatments he so eloquently describes throughout. Or, in his own words: “I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true.” [Gregg LaGambina]

4. In Search Of Lost Time, Marcel Proust

The unofficial granddaddy of all bed-bound art, Marcel Proust’s epic seven-volume In Search Of Lost Time continues to haunt the literary set long after the final book was published in 1927. This “haunting” has mostly to do with the fact that even the most ardent bibliophiles struggles to get past The Guermantes Way (volume three), widely considered to be the driest, slowest, and most political entry in the series. This is a shame, because Proust perished trying to complete the work, dying at age 51. Confined to his bedroom in his final years, and eventually succumbing to pneumonia (in addition to a variety of respiratory ailments that had plagued him from childhood), Proust was on a mad dash to get his life down on paper, to make art from his brief time on earth. The least you could do is read it, or you might find yourself struggling to whisper, “But I never read Proust!” on your own deathbed. [Gregg LaGambina]


5. …Like Clockwork, Queens Of The Stone Age

“I speak, I breathe, I’m incomplete, I’m alive, hooray!” sings Josh Homme on the …Like Clockwork piano ballad “The Vampyre Of Time And Memory.” You read that correctly: piano ballad. It’s not the usual fare from a songwriter who took notes early in his career from Black Sabbath—spooky music fueled by dropped tunings and emptied beer cans. But for the sixth Queens Of The Stone Age album, Josh Homme and his rotating crew of musicians encamped in Burbank at the singer’s own Pink Duck Studios to record songs deeply affected by Homme’s brush with death. In 2010, after a knee surgery gone wrong found him waking up to the news that he had almost been “lost,” Homme was bedbound for months and sunk deeply into depression. The fruits of this struggle surfaced, like its rehabilitated creator, to become the band’s most consistently appealing album in its 16-year career, proving that heaviness comes in many forms and is especially dark when it’s true. [Gregg LaGambina]


6. Personal Memoirs Of Ulysses S. Grant, Ulysses S. Grant

History hasn’t always been kind to Ulysses S. Grant. The man who in short order went from leather-shop clerk to supreme commander of Lincoln’s armies—and onward to his own presidency—should rank among our greatest American humans ever. Instead, Grant is also remembered for rampant corruption within his administration, as well as a probably undeserved reputation for inopportune binge drinking. Despite his many victories on and off the battlefield, Grant was not a particularly wealthy man. What money he did have after leaving the White House he spent on a costly world tour. After he was diagnosed with throat cancer, Grant decided to write his memoirs so his family could live off of the proceeds. As he slowly wasted away, the unfortunate result of a three cigars-per-day regimen, Grant raced to finish his account of the War Between The States. Fortunately, he had a well regarded publisher and advisor—Mark Twain. Their friendship and collaboration inevitably led to accusations that Twain himself had written Grant’s account, but the book lacks any Twain-ian adornment. (There’s nary a young scallywag or time-traveling New Englander to be found.) While Twain may have helped shape and promote the memoir, the work—widely considered one of the world’s great military accounts—is all Grant. [Drew Toal]

7. “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” Glen Campbell

Rhinestone Cowboy and country legend Glen Campbell is still alive, but he’s deep into a battle with Alzheimer’s Disease, an affliction that has taken away not only his words and melodies but also a good deal of his general acuity. In 2014, Campbell went on a victory tour of sorts, playing shows while he still could and releasing both a documentary, Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, and a farewell single, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” Recorded in 2013, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” is wrenching from note one, especially alongside footage of Campbell’s life and loves in the music video. With lyrics about how Campbell has all-encompassing love for his family and knows that, due to the ravages of his disease, he won’t actually remember them when he dies, it’s a heartbreaking take on Campbell’s life and his battle with his own brain. [Marah Eakin]


8. “The Saddest Day Of My Life,” Craig Wedren

With a title like “The Saddest Day Of My Life,” you could be forgiven for thinking you’re about to hear just another song dealing with romantic heartbreak. But Shudder To Think’s Craig Wedren was actually going through chemotherapy when he composed this song—he’d received a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. As he’d tell The A.V. Club a few years later, he was receiving brutal doses of radiation to his head and chest, which is enough to make anyone start pondering whether they have a future. As a result, lines like “It’s sad when you leave me alone” gain a deeper, bleaker meaning, and the context transforms the implications of his plaintive “Don’t fantasize on me / your heart will bleed, your eyes will burn.” Thankfully, Wedren’s treatment put the lymphoma in remission, and the tune endures as both a lovely torch song lament and arguably the best use of castanets in a ’90s art-pop nugget. [Alex McCown]


9. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Spencer Tracy

Spencer Tracy died only 17 days after shooting his last scene for 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. The actor was seriously ill throughout filming, but he reportedly was kept on schedule and in form thanks to Herculean efforts by costar Katharine Hepburn. The illness isn’t noticeable in the final product, as Tracy bring his usual poise to bear as a father wrestling with his prejudices. The actor received a posthumous Oscar nomination and praise for the role, and although there are no overt nods to his grave condition in the film, Hepburn’s attentiveness to her onscreen partner acquires an added layer of feeling by our knowledge—and both actors’ awareness—that Tracy was not long for this world. [Alex McCown]

10. Angel, Alexis Denisof

Between seasons four and five of Angel, Alexis Denisof—who played former Watcher-turned “rogue demon hunter” Wesley Wyndam-Pryce—was stricken with Bell’s palsy, a nerve disorder that essentially paralyzed the left side of his face. Angel creator Joss Whedon, who directed the season premiere “Conviction,” says in the DVD commentary that the palsy-afflicted side of Denisof’s face was “not really photographable.” The diagnosis would be bad news for any actor (Denisof improved soon after), but it presented a particular challenge for Whedon, who had designed a show-opening tracking shot where, as usual, Wesley was set to deliver copious exposition about the Angel gang’s takeover of evil law firm Wolfram & Hart. Any long opener is difficult, but watching the shot with Denisof’s condition in mind, Whedon’s achievement is even more impressive, as it deftly weaves around his star’s temporary “bad side.” Thankfully, Wesley’s evolution had made him more taciturn over the years—in this case, terseness was a virtue. [Dennis Perkins]


11. Il Postino, Massimo Troisi

At a time when countryman Roberto Benigni was being hailed as “Chaplinesque,” Italian television star Massimo Troisi was turning in a quieter approximation in the sweetly affecting comedy Il Postino, which casts Troisi as the fumbling postman on an island full of burly fishermen. As he befriends exiled poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) and bashfully romances town beauty Maria Grazia Cucinotta, the gangly Troisi is a picture of apologetic fragility. It’s a performance all the more touching considering Troisi essentially died to secure it—a degenerative heart ailment weakened him to the point that he eventually could only work an hour a day, and then only with one or two takes for each scene. (Most of his extended bike-riding scenes were performed by his stunt double.) Perhaps sensing that the film, which he co-wrote, would vault him into international stardom, Troisi postponed heart surgery to complete the film—and died of a heart attack the day after filming his last scene, at the age of 41. He received a posthumous Oscar nomination for Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. [Dennis Perkins]


12. A Prairie Home Companion, Robert Altman

At the 2006 Oscar ceremony, Robert Altman gratefully accepted a lifetime achievement award but joked that he’d just finished a picture and probably had a couple more decades of work left in him. By the end of the year, Altman was dead. It later came out that during the making of the movie he’d mentioned at the Oscars—an adaptation of Garrison Keillor’s radio show A Prairie Home Companion—the insurance company insisted that director Paul Thomas Anderson be on the set to take over if the visibly frail Altman couldn’t finish the shoot. The film’s working title, The Last Show, suggests that Altman knew he was saying his goodbyes. A Prairie Home Companion is a meditation on endings, with several characters openly discussing the proper legacy for people who spend their lives in show business. Ultimately the movie is one final, modest example of what Pauline Kael once called “a Robert Altman party,” and as such it comes across more as a celebration than a lament. [Noel Murray]

13. Songs In A&E, Spiritualized

The title of Spiritualized’s sixth album doesn’t have the same double meaning outside the U.K.: In British parlance, “A&E” refers to “Accident And Emergency,” which Americans know as the emergency room. Jason Pierce finished the record while recovering from a bout of pneumonia so serious that it almost killed him, and songs like “Death Take Your Fiddle” are deepened by that context. (“Death take your fiddle / and play a song for me / Play a song we used to sing / the one that brought you close to me.”) This wouldn’t be the last time that serious illness played a part in the band’s music: The recording of its next album, Sweet Heart Sweet Light, was undertaken while Pierce struggled with the side effects of medicine he was taking for liver disease. [Josh Modell]


14. Prairie Wind, Neil Young

Because he’s a proponent of “audio verité,” Neil Young has never shied away from writing and recording when he’s not feeling up to par. Young penned “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By The River,” and “Cowgirl In The Sand” while he was feverish with the flu, and he blazed through Tonight’s The Night while heavily intoxicated and angrily grieving two dead friends. The gentle 2005 folk/country album Prairie Wind was mostly written in response to the death of Young’s father, and then mostly recorded after Young was diagnosed with an aneurysm. Young recovered quickly from the surgery—after he’d finished the album. That may explain the eerie calm and unusual feeling of control to Prairie Wind, which replaces Young’s usual wildness with a wistful resignation. [Noel Murray]

15. The Wind, Warren Zevon

When Warren Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable abdominal cancer in 2002, he declined any life-extending treatments and instead went into the studio to record his best album in 15 years. Working with some of his closest friends in the music business—including Bruce Springsteen, Ry Cooder, Jackson Browne, and Tom Petty—Zevon knocked out a set of simple rock and folk songs, as clean and uncomplicated as the music he made during his mid-1970s heyday. And while The Wind has less of the dark humor that was a staple of his repertoire throughout his career, it’s bookended perfectly, starting with the rowdy “Dirty Life And Times” and ending with the unassuming, elegiac “Keep Me In Your Heart”—the kind of song and sentiment that just about any dying person would want to leave behind. [Noel Murray]


16. On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft, Stephen King

A little less than two years into the process of putting together what would ultimately become the autobiography-cum-composition advice manual On Writing, Stephen King was struck by a van while walking the back roads of Maine. The accident broke King’s hip and caused other injuries, leading to months of painful physical therapy. The prolific author struggled to recover the voluminous energy that had helped to make him one of the most popular novelists in the world. The work that emerged amid these trials wasn’t always stellar (Dreamcatcher, his first post-accident novel, is also one of his worst), but the drive to keep working also resulted in some of the most direct and powerful writing of King’s career. The last section of On Writing consists largely of a step-by-step account of the author’s accident and the debilitating aftermath, and the resultant book remains a high-water mark in King’s bibliography: clear, personable, engaged, and, at its best, richly humane. [Zack Handlen]

17. Discreet Music, Brian Eno

Were it not for an automobile accident that left Brian Eno confined to a body cast, he might never have developed the style of ambient music that dominated his career and influenced countless imitators. Sure, the concept of sprawling, soothing instrumentals that prioritize tone and texture certainly didn’t originate with Eno, and he’d already been experimenting with slower mood music on his solo recordings and collaborations with Robert Fripp. But Eno developed and codified those ideas while laid up, listening to an album of 18th-century harp music that was playing too faintly in the background of his hospital room, all because he couldn’t get up and reach the volume knob. That experience inspired Eno to compose 1975’s Discreet Music, an album intended to blend into the background and create a state of reflective bliss—all borne out of the violence of a car crash. [Sean O’Neal]


18. Donuts, J Dilla

Donuts, the last and best beat tape by iconic hip-hop producer James “J Dilla” Yancey, began as a way to distract Dilla from the incurable blood disease that was shutting down his organs. His close friends, including Common and Madlib, set up a makeshift studio in his hospital room and brought vinyl for Dilla to sample and chop. The project consumed Dilla to the point that the hospital bed became constraining. He reportedly woke his mother at all times of the night to help him into a nearby recliner so he could better focus, and he would burn the midnight oil crafting the best beats of his career. He named the project after his favorite food and recorded 31 beats, one for every year of his life. Donuts was released on Dilla’s 32nd birthday, and he died three days later. The finished project makes clear Dilla knew he didn’t have much time left, and though the highlight of Donuts urges his survivors not to cry, it’s a hard request to comply with. [Joshua Alston]


19. New World Order, Curtis Mayfield

After he wrote “People Get Ready” for The Impressions and created a funky back catalog featuring such classic solo albums as Roots, Super Fly, and There’s No Place Like America Today, Curtis Mayfield’s career seemed to reach an abrupt end in 1990: During a concert at Brooklyn’s Wingate Field, he was struck by falling equipment and paralyzed from the neck down. In 1997, however, Mayfield rose above the challenges and released New World Order, the making of which reveals just how badly the man wanted to make more music. To record the album’s 13 tracks, Mayfield had to be on his back, as it was the only way he could get enough air into his lungs to sing, and even at that, he could only sing one line at a time. The editing involved to make New World Order was considerable, but it was worth the effort: The set, which would be Mayfield’s last (he died in 1999), went on to earn a 1997 Grammy nod for Best R&B Album. [Will Harris]


20. Various Works, Frida Kahlo

It’s hard to say what influenced Mexican painter Frida Kahlo most: revolution, heartache, illness, injury, or her determination to make the most of a life that she sensed would be cut short. Born in 1907, a few years before the Mexican revolution, Kahlo contracted polio as a child, which permanently impaired her left leg. As a teenager, she was impaled by a piece of wreckage in a horrific bus accident; her screams were said to be louder than the ambulance sirens. She was in bed recovering from this accident when she first started to paint. Her resulting spinal injuries resulted in dozens of operations, years in bed and in plaster torso casts (which she decorated), and excruciating pain off and on for the rest of her life. But the prolific artist found inspiration in the pain, and in various political movements. Kahlo was fond of self-portraits, so her sickbed had a mirror to make it easier to paint herself, and a carpenter set up a special easel so that she could paint lying down. Her emotionally resonant art inspired her native country to embrace her as the heart of Mexico, and she left behind an astonishing volume of work before she died at 47. [Gwen Ihnat]