A Book We Love: The End of Your Life Book Club
Last weekend, as I looked over my to-read stack for the perfect book to dive into, my eye landed on a galley I was given at the recent tradeshow I worked, The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. I took it mostly because all three co-workers at the show told me that I MUST read it, and I trust them whole-heartedly, but when I came home from the show I set it aside because it sounded way too depressing- it’s the true story of a son and his beloved mother who start an “end of your life book club” that they conduct during her chemo sessions as she is dying of pancreatic cancer. As I brought it downstairs to the couch, I told myself I would give it a few chapters, and would put it down if I wasn’t into it. Flash forward to a few hours later when I finally set it down, finished and loved. I held a pencil throughout the entire reading, and underlined many passages and lines that I wanted to remember, something that I haven’t done in years.
I feel like I could write pages about this book, but in the interest of keeping this (moderately) brief, here are the reasons I am compelling you all to read this book and to share it with your loved ones and friends:
* Mary Anne Schwalbe, the author Will’s mother, was a truly amazing woman. Among her many accomplishments: raising happy, successful children, maintaining a long, healthy marriage, becoming the director of admissions at Harvard, founding the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, and finally, heading up a foundation that establishes libraries in Afghanistan, one of the many countries she traveled to dozens of times.
* Will, her son, accomplished in his own right (including working as editor-in-chief at a huge publishing house), writes so frankly and clearly, with such humor and emotion, that though you know his mother’s time is limited, the book is never tragic. In fact, I felt like he appreciated the gift his family was given, of knowing to make the most of the time they had with their mother, and they used it to connect with her on a more intimate level than they had before.
* The discussions that the two have as part of their “book club” are so thoughtful and interesting. You don’t have to have read any of the books mentioned (though I know am adding at least 10 of them to my reading list) to appreciate the opinions of two devoted book lovers approaching these reads from very different viewpoints. These two are not book snobs- they read a wide variety of books, ranging from Crossing to Safety to Appointment in Samarra to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
* Mary Anne had so much wisdom to share. I love that her son understood that “The greatest gift of our book club was that it gave me time and opportunity to ask her things, not tell her things.” I marked so many passages of her experienced beliefs that I plan to go back to and think about on a deeper level. The words on creativity at the beginning of this post really struck me, as did this:
We all owe everyone for everything that happens in our lives. But it’s not owing like a debt to one person- it’s really that we owe everyone for everything. Our whole lives can change in an instant- so each person who keeps that from happening, no matter how small a role they play, is also responsible for all of it. Just by giving friendship and love, you keep the people around you from giving up- and each expression of friendship or love may be the one that makes all the difference.
* Like many of us, Mary Anne was a fierce advocate of print books, despite Will’s fondness for eReaders. Though Will enjoyed the convenience of eBooks, he acknowledged why his mother was loyal to the printed word, saying this about her love for a used edition of a beloved book that had belonged to and been enjoyed by several different readers over time:
The owners of the book were born and died; what remained was the physical book itself. Over the years, it had gotten more brittle and more foxed and more stained, and it needed to be handled with increasing delicacy and care as the binding grew loose with age, but you knew that it was the exact same book that others had read before you, and that you had read in the years before. Would the words have inspired Mom the same way if they had been flashing on a screen? She didn’t think so.
I’m hopeful that many of you will read this and pick up this lovely book. I found it so stunning and clear in its message: to find a way, through books or something else, to communicate more openly with people in your life, and to stay open to new ideas and experiences. Mary Anne lived a full, amazingly rich life, and I’m so grateful her son is able to share her with all of us.