When I gave my friend Carol this book for her birthday I had to cover the title with a little note that said, “The Living with Books Book Club,” because I didn’t want her to think that 60 was anywhere near “The End of (her) Life.” But that worry aside, I knew she would love this book. In fact, I’ve been recommending it to everyone I know who loves books, which is just about everyone I know, fortunately for me.
Will Schwalbe’s “End of Your Life Book Club” is a exhilarating book. Yes, it’s about death, but it’s so much more about life, about an extraordinary woman, and about the pleasures of time lived in the company of books. “What are you reading?” Schwalbe asks his mother as they wait for her first chemotherapy appointment for her newly-diagnosed pancreatic cancer. The ensuring conversation lasts the rest of her life. Really, though, it had been going on ever since Will Schwalbe learned to read.
From the minute we pick up the book we know one part of the ending, which is appropriate since Schwalbe’s mother always reads the last page first.
(I was happy to know that, since I am always tempted to do that--get the “what happens at the end” out of the way so to concentrate on what the book is really “about.” I’ve felt guilty about that impulse, but now, seeing that Mary Anne Schwalbe, a person I would respect on many levels, did that, maybe it’s okay for me to do that, too.)
There is a lot of discussion about what we learn from books about living and about people. And there is a sense, too, of the great pleasure of being immersed in an engaging book, doing the kind of reading that blocks out everything around you, the kind of book you put down or even finish only with great reluctance. And those pleasures are magnified by the intimacy of sharing a book’s ideas with someone you care about. Or even someone you hardly know but come to care about because you share them. What is a better vehicle that this for creating connection?
The book includes an indirect ongoing discussion of the experience of reading print versus screen. Mary Anne reads only hard copy; Will switches back and forth between the two. I do that, myself, and have little patience for seeing an either-or argument. But when Mary Anne finished a book, she often handed it off to someone else or left it somewhere to be picked up by an unknown next reader--a generous impulse consistent with the way she lived her life. Late in the book comes a quietly powerful argument in favor of paper. Will looks at Mary Anne as she is days from death and sees her surrounded by books they have discussed, books she has loved, books yet to be read. And he looks at his slim e-reader, giving up no clues about who has read it, who has dog-eared pages, slid in bookmarks, even underlined. It show no mark of the hands it has passed through. There are no inscriptions from gift-givers or signatures of authors. And he notices that there is a kind of soul that a print book carries that an e-reader does not. Don’t get me wrong; I will continue to flip back and forth between formats. I will not again lug vacation suitcases filled with books when I could carry them all and more in a few ounces. But I will certainly never stop reading printed books, noticing the tactile pleasure of paper, and introducing a newly-read book to its alphabetical neighbors on the shelf. Plus, of course, there’s the problem that it’s a little harder to turn to the last page first when you’re reading onscreen.
“The End of Your Life Book Club” doesn’t really end with Mary Anne’s death. It ends with more living: a list of the books they talked about. Page after page of them, some old favorites of mine, some I’d never before heard of. I added a lot of them to my own “to read” list. The world, after all, is filled with wonderful books. Reading them and talking about them could last until the end of your life.