‘That’s ok, I have a copy,’ I told her, which was, in fact, true. There are certain books that I mean to read and keep stacked by my bedside. I even take them on trips. Some of my books should be awarded their own frequent flier miles, they’ve travelled so much. I take these volumes on flight after flight with the best of intentions and then wind up reading anything and everything else (SkyMall! Golf Digest!). I’d brought Crossing to Safety on so many trips and returned it to my bedside unread so many times that it could have earned at least one first-class ticket to Tokyo on Japan Airlines.
Ultimately sad, in that no cancer-defying miracle is forthcoming, but also uplifting in that Schwalbe had so long to come to terms with his mother’s imminent passing and to celebrate his mother’s life. Part book club record, part memoir of his own life, predominantly memoir for and homage to his extraordinary mother, a woman deeply committed to the needs of those less fortunate. It is obvious that Schwalbe had great love and great respect for his indomitable mother, and is truly grateful for the opportunity to share a beloved activity with her – and the opportunities for difficult conversations that the books provided. In a sense, the memoir will chronicle and assist Mary Anne’s legacy of libraries in Afghanistan and refugee camps in Cambodia, of refugees in Liberia and Pakistan and Thailand. This is (between books) the story of a woman who was ground-breaking and revolutionary in a quiet, mild-mannered way.
Schwalbe’s own life is perhaps less remarkable in events of his own making, but there is an untold story here – he walked away from a very successful career in publishing to “follow his bliss”. Throughout, his humility (inherited no doubt from the formidable Mary Anne) lets only a little of his personal achievements shine through – as relentlessly as Mary Anne refused to focus on her pain and suffering, so Will shines the spotlight back to his mother and their shared literary experiences.
All of that aside; the books. I slowed my own reading of this by making a note of works as they were mentioned – I wanted to look up a large number of them when I got back to an internet connection. It was only when I got to the end of the book that a clever editor had considerately put a list there! So if you read this, don’t worry about making notes as you go along. I wondered, a number of times, quite how Mary Anne, with her enormous programme of humanitarian work and commitments, had time to read so much. But then people look at me askance when I say I’m taking a book a day on a holiday, which I don’t understand, so I shouldn’t doubt another bibliophile’s capacity.
Will and Mary Anne read extensively, thematically (although that, perhaps, accidentally), thoroughly and resolvedly. There was always another book to surprise me (that they read and loved The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was both shocking and pleasing), another book which sounded daunting and impenetrable and an absolute must-read. Their love for literature is very clear, and their willingness to learn from the great (and not great) works of culture is admirable. Each chapter is named for a work that one of them was reading and some lesson that they learned from that work, or a difficult conversation that needed to be had. Schwalbe writes at just the right level about the books – most works get between a few sentences and a few paragraphs, but never more than that. There is a chapter of Tolkien vs. C S Lewis, but that is also mostly about the childhood of the Schwalbe brothers.
As one might expect, The End of Your Life Book Club prompted me to think about my own shared reading experiences, but that’s fodder for another post.
Copy kindly provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Publisher: Two Roads, 352 pages (hardback).
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