Book Article

If Books Could Kill...

Derek Humphry's ''Final Exit'' -- The author's manual on suicide is now a best-seller

In Wichita, Kan., where the right to life has shredded a community and set kin against kin this summer, the right to die is not causing any stir at all. In Kansas as in most other parts of this country, Derek Humphry's remarkable instructional manual on suicide, Final Exit, has just become the hot new best-seller, and the most startling part of its rise is the lack of fuss about it. ''We're amazed at how many people are ordering the book,'' says Sarah Bagby, managing partner of Wichita's Watermark Books; and Carol Publishing, distributor of the manual published by the Hemlock Society, reports complaints at no more than a handful of stores across the entire country. What can explain this unequivocal appetite, even in heartland America, for a book that shows people how to kill themselves?

Final Exit's author thinks he knows. Sitting in the Eugene, Ore., headquarters of the Hemlock Society, the 42,000-member organization that promotes the right of the terminally ill to die, Derek Humphry says, ''Even our opponents, in the bottom of their hearts, might wonder, 'I'm opposed to it, but who knows? I might want some relief from suffering later on.' Only a tiny percentage of us are going to have abortions. But death is a universal issue. Society is ready for such a book.''

He seems to be right. To be sure, Final Exit is not being marketed routinely: Waldenbooks is asking its stores to consider Humphry's manual as ''adult material,'' like The Joy of Sex or Penthouse, which means, says Jeff Rogart, vice president of merchandising for the 1,125-store chain, ''they monitor who it is sold to, and to some extent where they display it.'' Rogart and other booksellers say they're not sure whether the enthusiasm for Final Exit will last. But even if sales level off, the book that was rejected by several New York publishers has come a long way since its unpromising launch in April.

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