Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The End of Your Life Book Club

Almost from the moment I spotted the book’s title, I knew that I would be reading Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club.  Books about books have long appealed to me, and over the years, I have collected a number of my favorites of the type.  That this one is a memoir/biography rather than a novel about books made it even more appealing.

Will Schwalbe, former editor in chief of Hyperion Books, spent hours with his mother on the days she received chemotherapy treatment for the pancreatic cancer that was such a surprise to Mary Anne and her family.  When they ran out of things to talk about in the waiting or treatment rooms, Will and his mother often drifted into conversations about their shared love of reading.  

On one of their days together, Will turned to his mother with a simple question: “What are you reading?”  Mary Anne replied, appropriately enough, that she was reading Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety and offered to give him her copy of the 1987 book when she was done.  By chance, Will already had a copy of his own and, at home that evening, he picked it up again.  When Mother and son discussed their reactions to the book the next time they were together, the “end of your life book club” was born. 

As he recounts the progress of Mary Anne’s disease, Schwalbe references more than one hundred books and authors he and his mother discussed during their book club “meetings.”  Their discussions offer a virtual treasure trove of insights that will have readers scrambling to get copies of many of the books for themselves.  This is the reason that avid readers are so taken by books about books, but The End of Your Life Book Club is really a son’s tribute to his mother, a woman he both loves and admires for the life she lived.  What will particularly appeal to readers is how Will and Mary Anne’s mutual love of reading make it possible for them to broach subjects they otherwise might never have found a way to discuss. 

Will Schwalbe, of course, explains it best:

            “They (the books) reminded us that no matter where Mom and I were on our individual journeys, we could still share books, and while reading those books, we wouldn’t be the sick person and the well person; we would simply be a mother and son entering new worlds together.”

And there are moments like this one during their discussion of David Halberstam’s last book, The Coldest Winter, when Mary Anne offers:

            “That’s one of the things books do.  They help us talk.  But they also give us something we can all talk about when we don’t want to talk about ourselves.”

Will Schwalbe
Finally, I will never forget the way that Schwalbe describes his mother, near death and surrounded by stacks and shelves filled with her favorite books:

            “They (books) were Mom’s companions and teachers.  They had shown her the way.  And she was able to look at them as she readied herself for the life everlasting that she knew awaited her.  What comfort could be gained from staring at my lifeless e-reader?”

Now, that is something to consider as the world moves ever closer to being dominated by electronic, virtual books.

The End of Your Life Book Club is a beautiful book, and it has earned a spot on my bookshelves where it is likely to remain for a long, long time.  It is one of my new favorites.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)


  1. Going on my wish list pronto. Two of my favorite subjects: books (of course), and the amazingly intimate experience of sharing that time with a sick parent, aware that it is mostly likely the last opportunity to enjoy them, learn from them, and show gratitude.


  2. I'm going to wish that I'd read this before my dad died. What a phenomenal concept!

  3. Susan, I'm going to bet that you will love this book. It is destined to be somewhere in my 2012 Top 10 nonfiction list...just a matter of where, at this point.

  4. Debbie, if your father was a reader, this would have been a great comfort to you both. I think that a perfect match requires a bit of luck on both ends, but I really do think the author has done a wonderful thing by sharing his experience and alerting them to the possibility of doing the same with a loved one of their own.