When Will Schwalbe’s mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it only made sense that he turned to books—it was his mother, after all, who had instilled in him a deep love of reading. In The End of Your Life Book Club, Schwalbe tells how he learned more about his mother’s inspiring life and how they both got through the grief of her terminal illness by reading and discussing books. A touching tribute both to a mother and to the written word, this book reminds us that reading is living and it can help us engage with the world as well as those closest to us.
Books for Better Living: How did the book club help both you and your mother as you dealt with her illness?
Will Schwalbe: Mom and I were lifelong readers. And for as long as I can remember, we always talked with each other about books. So the main thing the book club did was kept our relationship the way it always had been. When we were reading, we weren’t a sick person and a well person but a mother and son exploring books together. The book club also allowed us to tackle painful and difficult subjects—big topics like death and courage and loneliness. Books gave us a way to talk about those subjects obliquely, not head-on. We could talk about them by talking about characters in books who were dealing with similar issues. Finally, the book club was a source of pleasure—while we were reading, we were discovering new writers, new voices, new characters, new worlds. Reading was one of the ways Mom continued to live even as she was dying, and our discussions about books gave me new memories not directly connected to her illness that I would be able to have and share as long as I live.
BBL: One thing I just couldn’t understand is how your mother always read the end of a book first. Why did she do this?
WS: Mom couldn’t wait to see how things would turn out—so she always skipped to the end of a book. But she also felt that reading the end first increased her enjoyment. I race ahead in every book to see what will happen; because Mom already knew how each book would end, she was able to savor the prose, the characters, and the author’s observations.
BBL: Which new books would you recommend to your mother if she were alive today?
WS: The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam; The Paternity Test by Michael Lowenthal; A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver; Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 by Elizabeth Alexander—and so many more!
BBL: Your mother seemed to try several alternative therapies and comfort measures. Did she have a favorite, or did one in particular seem to be the most helpful? How did it help her?
WS: Mom tried many different things, and she found bio-feedback helpful and also had a good experience with Reiki. I think the thing that was most consistently helpful to her was yoga. She had a wonderful friend come and do both yoga and just general stretching with her, and she looked forward to that.
BBL: Throughout her illness, your mother worked very hard trying to get a library built in Afghanistan. What is the status on the project?
WS: Mom really wanted to help her friend Nancy Hatch Dupree fulfill her dream of building a national research and cultural center in Afghanistan on the grounds of Kabul University. I’m delighted to say that the building is finished and they are just fixing up the inside to get it ready. It should be fully open at the very end of this year or in the early part of 2013. Also, portable libraries have gone to more than 200 villages in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan. There’s great information on the Dupree Foundation at dupreefoundation.org.
Will Schwalbe, founder of Cookstr.com, has worked in publishing (most recently as senior vice president and editor in chief of Hyperion Books); in new media; and as a journalist, writing for various publications including The New York Times and The South China Morning Post. Follow The End of Your Life Book Club and Will Schwalbe on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest.