“What are you reading?”
That’s the question Will Schwalbe asks his mother, Mary Anne, as they sit in the waiting room of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In 2007, Mary Anne returned from a humanitarian trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan suffering from what her doctors believed was a rare type of hepatitis. Months later she was diagnosed with a form of advanced pancreatic cancer, which is almost always fatal, often in six months or less.
This is the inspiring true story of a son and his mother, who start a “book club” that brings them together as her life comes to a close. Over the next two years, Will and Mary Anne carry on conversations that are both wide-ranging and deeply personal, prompted by an eclectic array of books and a shared passion for reading. Their list jumps from classic to popular, from poetry to mysteries, from fantastic to spiritual. The issues they discuss include questions of faith and courage as well as everyday topics such as expressing gratitude and learning to listen. Throughout, they are constantly reminded of the power of books to comfort us, astonish us, teach us, and tell us what we need to do with our lives and in the world. Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.
Will and Mary Anne share their hopes and concerns with each other—and rediscover their lives—through their favorite books. When they read, they aren’t a sick person and a well person, but a mother and a son taking a journey together. The result is a profoundly moving tale of loss that is also a joyful, and often humorous, celebration of life: Will’s love letter to his mother, and theirs to the printed page.
Amazon Best Books of the Month, October 2012: Tissues at the ready, I braced myself for The End of Your Life Book Club, Will Schwalbe’s memoir of his mother’s death from pancreatic cancer. But Mary Anne Schwalbe is such a fierce, unsentimental heroine--and her son such a frank and funny storyteller--that what could have been an emotional roller coaster turns out to be a beautifully paced ride. Mary Anne loves a good book as ardently as she loves her kids and her causes, chief among them a campaign to build a library in Afghanistan. When her health starts to fail, Will joins her for hospital appointments. They wait, they talk, and they read together--everything they’ve ever wanted to discuss. As much an homage to literature as to the mother who shared it with him, Will’s chronicle of this heartrending time opens up his captivating family to the rest of us. We should all be so lucky as to read along with the Schwalbes. --Mia Lipman
For twenty-one years I worked in book publishing, mostly in editorial, acquiring the rights to manuscripts, working with authors to help shape their works, and trying to convince the world to pay attention to the various, wonderful books we were publishing. I learned from some of the all time great editors and publishers. But part of my publishing education went way, way back – to before I could read a word myself.
When I was a young child, before I went to sleep, my mother, like so many parents, would read me a book. My brother, eighteen months older, got his own book read to him. Later, my sister, four years younger, would have her own.
My mother was a working mother (a phrase she always disliked, as she rightly pointed out that no one talks of “working fathers”), so she wasn’t always home at night. She sometimes worked late, and she travelled for business, and, even when she and my dad were in town, they occasionally were out for dinner. But if she was home, she read us each a book before bed.
My early favorites included The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and Harold and Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson. I loved that there was a bull who liked to smell flowers and wouldn’t fight, and I was amazed by the boy who could draw himself out of any jam. But the experience was far more than the books themselves. First, there was the comfort and security of being tucked into bed. (Is it coincidence that we use the phrase “tuck into” before three of my favorite things: food, bed, and good books, or is it because the pleasures of each have so much in common?) Then, there was the happy, selfish knowledge that, when it was my turn, I would be able to monopolize my mother’s attention just by sitting and listening.
But what I remember most is the way Mom made us feel that she was sharing something she loved with us, not completing a chore or performing a ritual. (Though I’m sure there were many nights when she was exhausted and would have loved to be in bed herself and fast asleep.) And when we shared the books, we also shared discussions about them. Why didn’t the men understand that Ferdinand just didn’t want to fight? There’s no one answer, but it’s a question Mom and I explored together time and again.
Later, I would start to read to myself of course. But it was the nightly reading with Mom that helped me become a reader – and probably pushed me toward the career in book publishing. From Mom, I learned that there’s a public pleasure in books as well as a private one; that sharing books you love and getting others to read them can create a powerful bond, not just between a parent and child, but among thousands or millions of strangers.