Friday, December 21, 2012

Day 21: The End of Your Life Book Club

Wow. It's Friday, which means Christmas is only a few days away, and means it's Day 21 in our 24 Days of Books. One of my favorite books of the season -- and one of the most touching and inspirational (which sounds way smarmier than the book is)  --  is the true story of a son and his mother who start a “book club” that brings them together as her life comes to a close. The End of Your Life Book Club ($25; Knopf), by Will Schwalbe, tells the story of the time he spent with his mother at the end of her life -- his mother’s last days through the prism of the things they read together

Mary Anne Schwalbe had been a passionate, active woman; she maintained her passions to the end. She had a successful career in education, eventually becoming the director of admissions at Radcliffe and then Harvard. In her 50s, she discovered the cause of refugees, and she devoted the rest of her life to that cause, traveling all over the world -- Bosnia, Liberia, Monrovia, Laos, etc. She was the founding director of what is now known as The Women's Refugee Commission.

As an ardent believer in education and in reading, one of her final goals was to help raise money for a national library and cultural center at Kabul University, as well as for traveling libraries to reach remote villages throughout Afghanistan. (Today, the main library building is almost finished, and there are nearly 200 libraries across all 34 provinces.)

When Mary Anne was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, her husband and children were actively involved in her treatment. Will started accompanying his mother to her chemo treatments. Because they were both ardent readers, Will usually started their conversations with a natural question: "What are you reading?" Mary Anne underwent treatment for almost two years, so what evolved was a sort of mother-son book club.

Talking about books allowed them to talk about tough issues that they might not have otherwise been able to talk about. It wasn't about setting a reading agenda -- reading all the classics, for instance, or books on a certain subject -- but just reading books they wanted to read, for whatever reason, and talking about them. "Just because a book is selling zillions of copies and is enormously popular, that doesn’t mean there aren’t extraordinary things to be learned and gained from it. That education and inspiration can come from all different kinds of messengers....I really wanted to show how my mother and I talked about books, which is we’d talk about what was interesting to us in a book. It doesn’t have to be the best thing you ever read or the worst thing you ever read. It can just be interesting."
Schwalbe was in publishing for 21 years. During that time he saw a lot of great memoirs about people who had difficult times with their mothers. For him, however, this memoir is a celebration of his mother.

At Hyperion, Schwalbe signed a book, The Last Lecture, written by a college professor who was dying of pancreatic cancer and wanted to leave something behind so his young children would have a way of knowing him. Schwalbe thought about sharing the manuscript with his mother, but he worried that perhaps the subject might be too close to her situation. So he just left the manuscript in her room and figured she would read it if she wanted to. She devoured it.

Another book they read together was The Etiquette of Illness, by Susan Halpern, through which he learned not to ask "How are you feeling?" but rather "Do you want to talk about how you are feeling?" He learned that when you are spending time with someone who is ill or dying, it's not about what you say; it's about what you ask -- ask, and then truly listen -- and to check in more regularly, rather than waiting until something bad happens.

Along the way, Schwalbe began writing a blog to keep friends updated on his mother's condition. But it also gave his mom a "mini platform" to get out what she wanted to say. "Don't forget to talk about healthcare reform," for instance. As her son says, there were things she wanted to say in her life, but she didn't care that she said them; she just wanted them heard.

Education and books were very important to her. But she wasn't a writer. A few months before she died he told her that he wanted to write a book about their time together and their reading lists. Her first response was "There’s got to be something else that’s more interesting to write about.” But she began to cotton to the idea: "She loved the idea that the causes and books she was passionate about would get out in the world."

Although Shwalbe and his mom never actually had "The Big Talk" about death and cancer, through their "book club" they had lots of little talks, around books, that actually added up to The Big Talk. In other words, they had The Big Talk; it just lasted two years. The books they talked about allowed her to choose how personal or abstract she wanted the conversation to be.

By the time Mary Anne Schwalbe died, at age 75 -- about two years into the "book club" -- she and her son had read dozens of books of all different kinds: classic novels and modern ones, mysteries, biographies, poetry,  short-story collections, self-help and spiritual books, histories. She had one particular idiosyncrasy as a reader: she always read the ending of a book first. At the back of the book an appendix lists all of the authors, books, plays, poems, and stories discussed or mentioned in Schwalbe's memoir.

One of the lessons Mary Anne left her son was this: "It’s not enough to be moved by a book — you have to do something...books are calls to action. Sometimes they’re calls to action to do something very specific in the world....But sometimes they’re calls to action to see things differently, to treat people differently, to change the way that you move in the world."

Schwalbe titled his book not to remind himself that his mom was dying, "but so I would remember that we all are — that you never know what book or conversation will be your last." 

While the book is very clearly a tribute to and celebration of his mother, Schwalbe had a second goal in mind as well: "What I really wanted to do was share with people the role that books played in our lives, and the way to do that was to tell our story. I think many people who don’t read think that reading is a kind of escape—that it’s the opposite of doing something. You even hear people say things like, 'Why don’t you put down that book and do something?' But reading is doing something, and it’s one of the most important things in the world. I wanted to show how books can teach, entertain, help you talk about difficult things, change the way you see the world around you, show you what you need to do in the world, comfort and inspire. And I wanted to show how books could bring people closer to each other, at a very difficult time—even two people who were already very close."

Will Schwalbe has worked in publishing (most recently as senior vice president and editor in chief of Hyperion Books); in digital media (as the founder and CEO of, a recipe website); and as a journalist (writing for various publications, including The New York Times and the South China Morning Post). He is the author with David Shipley of Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better.

As always you'll find many more great gift ideas in our Holiday Books guide, available at our store. We love more than anything helping you to find just the right gifts for the people on your list -- especially the hard-to-shop-for ones. Hope to see you soon! We'll be open til 9pm every day until Christmas, except for Sunday (7pm) and Christmas Eve (5pm), for your convenience. Publishers are already starting to run out of some of the hot titles of the year, so don't wait too long.

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