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What Was the Hardest Book to Write?

The memoir The Diving Bell and the Butterfly tells the heart-wrenching story of French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a cerebrovascular seizure in 1995 and lapsed into a three-week coma. When the former editor-in-chief of Elle magazine finally awoke, he was mentally aware of his surroundings, but physically paralyzed -- except for some movement of his head and eyes. Undeterred, Bauby wrote about his predicament, communicating individual letters to spell out words by blinking his left eye.

The book took about 10 months to write, with Bauby and his transcriber working for four hours every day. It took about 200,000 blinks to finish and an average word took approximately two minutes to spell out. On 9 March 1997, two days after the book was published, Bauby died of pneumonia.

Writing a book, letter by letter:

  • Using partner-assisted scanning, a transcriber repeatedly recited the letters of the alphabet until Bauby blinked to choose the letter.
  • The memoir chronicles everyday events for a person suffering from what is known as "locked-in syndrome."
  • The French edition of the book became a No. 1 bestseller across Europe. The memoir was made into an acclaimed film in 2007, starring Mathieu Amalric as Bauby.
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