The End of Your Life Book Club, Will Schwalbe
I get annoyed at people who complain about e-readers in favor of “real” books. The inner eyes roll whenever someone opines to me, “I just can’t let go of the feel of a real book in my hands,” or, “Words on a printed page are just sturdier,” or, “If there’s no physical heft, it’s not a book.” In response, I offer you my Gob Bluthiest, “Come on!” Do we thoughtfully abstain from movies because the actors aren’t really on stage in front of us? Should we harumph out of a party because the host has the temerity to play digitized music for us, in lieu of live band members getting sweaty? Next time you move, I’ll help with everything but the book boxes.
(Disclaimer: I apologize to all of you who over the years have told me that you’re a non e-book person and have met only with my approving grunts and gazes. Chalk one up to politesse. Sorry about that.)
Sadly, however, I’m not the codger I aspire to be. Behind me as I type are bookshelves filled with books that tell stories, but not only the ones contained inside them. Every volume I’ve read is linked to when I read it and, just as importantly, with whom. Consider:
— It isn’t simply that ten years ago I found Robert Stone’s Bay of Souls to be his weakest novel, it’s that my brother and I discussed the novel over Leffes at a tiny bar in the 4th arrondissement during an aureate afternoon the likes of which are always found in Paris but only rumored elsewhere.
— Cormac McCarthy novels recall a dusty back porch in Texas where I explored his “Border Trilogy” with a dear friend.
— Ditto Graham Greene: there’s Graham, but there’s also Jeff and the gin-and-tonics we poured in an effort to recreate the existential crisis stared down by befuddled, 20th century British diplomats.
— A new friend gave me some Italo Calvino last fall, so I consider Six Memos for the New Millenium with him in mind.
— My wife Emily and I have books that are ours, together; I don’t mention them here. — Whenever I’m back with old comrades from high school, an insertion of an undulating “kill the pig, cut her throat, spill the blood” enlivens any dull stretch of conversation.
Without books on shelves, I lose much of these stories. Memories are tactile. Maybe I should ditch my Kindle. (So you see, my approving grunts and gazes at you who are book luddites really aren’t disingenuous, after all.)
Books are totems to lives shared together, ciphers marking our place in a greater fabric that must mean something before the dying of the day. They’re stories that are already written but nevertheless write new ones for us, and ours into others’. The tragedy of Crooks in Of Mice and Men (“S’pose you didn’t have nobody. S’pose you had to sit out here an’ read books. A guy needs somebody—to be near him.”), or at least one of them, is that he was forced to read alone.
The End of Your Life Book Club, a featured book at Collingswood’s Book Festival this year, is a book about books, plus all the big stuff like people and family, life and death. It’s a memoir written by Will Schwalbe that that centers upon the conversations about books shared between himself and Mary Anne, his mother dying of cancer. Both lifetime readers, Will and Mary Anne sit together in hospital waiting rooms, beaches, and homes while commiserating about what they’d just read. It was shortly before the end of Mary Anne’s illness that Will decided (with his mother’s permission) to collect their exchanges into a novel. The books they share are touchstones of communion, remembrance, celebration, and construction. “[The novels] reminded us that no matter where Mom and I were on our individual journeys, we could still share books,” Will writes, “and while reading those books, we wouldn’t be the sick person and the well person; we would simply be a mother and a son entering new worlds together. What’s more, books provided much-needed ballast—something we both craved, amid the chaos and upheaval of Mom’s illness.” The End of Your Life Book Club is a beautiful story.
Mary Anne Schwalbe lived from 1934 to 2009, and roughly two years before her death she was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Many of us, if we were writing of our mothers, would present them to the world as extraordinary, but truly Mary Anne fit the label. In addition to having served as admissions director for Harvard and Radcliffe and having held other positions at different universities and schools, she was a tireless advocate for women’s and refugees’ rights around the world, visiting countless distressed regions and later founding the Women’s Refugee Committee. Will portrays his mother as a person of deep compassion and energy. I wish that I could have known her.
The End of Your Life Book Club focuses on the months in which Mary Anne struggles with cancer. Through the good days and bad, the latter of which eventually outnumber the former, Mary Anne maintains an honest outlook that acknowledges death and yet holds to a gratefulness and optimism that anchors herself and those around her. She had lived well, and so does she die. (If I could give any critique to Book Club, it would be that the grace with which Mary Anne bears her declining health is at times difficult to believe—I occasionally found myself waiting for her to say, “Soon return to Dagobah, I must.” I would have been just as interested to grapple with a narrative about dying from someone that was less sanguine about one’s own demise. However, since this is a memoir and if Mary Anne genuinely was this saintly, I can’t fault an accurate accounting of her.)
Still, Book Club isn’t only about dying, or even chiefly so. Mary Anne and Will read and talk about so many different books (Joan Didion, Marilynne Robinson, Herman Melville, Alice Munro, et. al.) that to take them all in is thrilling and dizzying. Through showing (but not telling), Will details how all of the different texts in the book club add to his and Mary Anne’s sense of humanity, whether by way of confirmation, inspiration, or challenge. Will also notices that books they share allow him to grow in his knowledge of Mary Anne; he learned more of her through the book discussions (and the time together that the conversations engendered). At one of her last doctor’s visits as Mary Anne fills out a “Do Not Resuscitate” form, Will is surprised to see that legally, his mother is “Mary Ann,” lacking the final “e” that she and everyone had always used: “And her middle name was Ann. Without an e. I’d never known Mom’s real name.” Will then knew. We likewise are given a window into the life of someone remarkable.
Will also affords us a view from which we’re able to appreciate why books are so important to us in the first place. Gorillas, dolphins, unicorns, and Shetland ponies may communicate with one another, but none of them read. We do, and we should. An effect of my reading Book Club was that I resolved to read more books and waste less time on facebook, espn.com, and backstreets.com. (Well, maybe not that last one.) Isn’t it strange that if using the internet and social media tend to dehumanize us, reading books does the opposite? Facebook has words and is about people—and nothing against facebook, I’m jus’ saying’—but if I veg for an hour or two there, I’m ready to be an extra for Walking Dead. On the other hand, pushing through Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for the same amount of time gives me courage to persist in the human experiment. Through books, we know better, and are better known. Will and Mary Anne’s joint consideration of scores of novels draw each closer to the other. He observes towards the end of his mother’s life,
When I looked at Mom in that moment, I saw not a sick person, but not quite the same Mom I’d known all my life. After reading so much together, and after so many hours together in doctor’s offices, I felt I’d met a slightly different person, a new person, someone quirkier and funnier. I was going to miss my mother dreadfully but also miss this new person, too—miss getting to know her better.
Reading is a fundamentally relational activity. We relate to text, to author, and to each other through the mediation of words.
Book Club succeeded as well in making me want to choose better and more challenging books to read. I’ll keep a few of my sweet tooth, literary peccadilloes, but I need to cut out some narrative junk food. Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t read silly things; we only need to find the right kind of silly. Will at one point in his novel assumes that Mary Anne would sneer at the works of Lewis Carroll, but she retorts,
Lewis Carroll is definitely not silly. It has silliness, but it’s a wonderful, fascinating, complicated book. I’m talking about those novels where the characters aren’t really interesting and you don’t care about them or anything they care about. It’s those I won’t read anymore. There’s too much else to read—books about people and things that matter, books about life and death.
I want to read about people and things that matter and wrestle with life and death. It would make me a better person.
What’s on your bookshelf? Will may sound a bit portentous when he observes, “We’re all in the end-of-our-life book club, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be the last, each conversation the final one,” but he’s not wrong.
Make no mistake, however: The End of Your Life Book Club is often crushingly sad. We know from the beginning that we’ll not reach a happy ending. Mary Anne dies, and that impending event shadows on every page. I assume I’m not alone among Schwalbe’s readers in that it was impossible for me not to read Book Club without considering my own aging parents, after which an already impossibly heavy subject became so much sadder. When Will comments, “Mom almost always smiled—but when she was happier than usual she beamed. Her cheeks, just under her eyes, would crinkle, and her smile would encompass her whole being,” I think not only of Mary Anne’s smile, but those of my mom and dad, and at the singularity of each. I think of the countless other details that only one’s children will remember about a parent, and that many of those once exacerbating markers of identity are becoming forlorn warnings of what’s soon to be no more. Very near to her last day, Mary Anne attends a gathering for which “she’d put on one of her favorite blouses and a turquoise scarf and her pearls.” Any author can write a detail like that about any person, but it’s different when you’re describing your dying mother. The blouse that you may have considered fussy, the scarf outdated, and the pearls overdone suddenly transform into the most beautiful objects in the world.
And can I say this, that death sucks? It really, really does. Schwalbe is correct to observe that “more than anything, we are a pretty awkward society when it comes to talking about dying. It’s supposed to happen offstage, in hospitals, and no one wants to dwell on it too much.” At the same time, the very reason that we prefer to sweep death aside is that it’s so horrible. You can’t Botox the Grim Reaper. As a pastor, I’m occasionally asked if I’ve ever officiated a “bad” funeral. I understand what the question indicates: a bad funeral is one where the death is particularly tragic, early, sudden, or horrific. My response to this question begins with my allowing that the churches that I’ve pastored have all skewed fairly young in age, so I’ve done far more weddings than funerals. So I’m lucky, I guess. Moreover, on the surface I’ve never had to speak at a “bad” funeral, but here’s the thing: all funerals are bad funerals. There’s always a despondent child, or spouse, or parent, or friends, always lament, always heartbreak, always confusion, always anger. Not for nothing does St. Paul call death “the last enemy.” Book Club does well not to ameliorate the abyss that death simply is.
I’ll wrap up by offering a few thoughts on Book Club from a Christian perspective, which hopefully doesn’t seem strange for a Christian pastor to do. You may be familiar with the Gospel according to St. John. It’s the last of the four gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, written towards the end of the first century. Most scholars would agree that the other three gospels were written while many eyewitnesses to Jesus would still have been alive. John’s gospel is later and in some ways more deeply reflective. John famously starts his gospel with the declaration, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.”
What’s up with that? In the centuries before Jesus, Jewish and Greek theologians and philosophers had developed the idea of the divine “logos” (or “word”) that serves as a kind of metaphysical blueprint for the entire cosmos. It’s the foundational principle or rationale for life, the universe, and everything. In a daring gambit, John appropriates this concept of logos and applies it directly to Jesus, the “he” of John’s gospel prologue. Christians have often taken the beginning of this fourth gospel as a statement of Christ’s divinity—which, as a Christian, I hold as an article of faith—but I believe that there’s more going on here than that. John could have found any number of ways to stress the divine nature of Jesus, but he specifically chose word. To me, we can glean from John’s gospel that behind all of our words stands a Word from which all of ours flows. Our words and stories, therefore, are not merely an exercise in our painting language games upon an ultimately mute interstellar canvas. Instead, because there is a deeper, sturdier Word, our words gain anchor, value, permanence, and even nobility. Soon after the opening of Book Club, Schwalbe writes, “Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.” I believe this to be true (and bracing) at many levels, but the reality of the Word causes this statement to be true, completely.
What’s more, what if this Word—and remember, words at their most pure are also the most ephemeral—was in human history married to the material and contended with the last enemy, the brute physicality of which would seem to render even the most powerful words silent? What if that Word was defeated by death but in that act conquered the conqueror and gave new songs, new words to a hobbled creation?
Will and Mary Anne in The End of Your Life Book Club together read John Updike’s Tears of our Fathers, a passage of which reads,
The list of our deceased classmates on the back of the program grows longer; the class beauties have gone to fat or bony-cronehood; the sports stars and non-athletes alike move about with the aid of pacemakers and plastic knees, retired and taking up space at an age when most of our fathers were considerately dead. It continued: But we don’t see ourselves that way, as lame and old. We see kindergarten children—the same round fresh faces, the same cup ears and long-lashed eyes. We hear the gleeful shrieking during elementary-school recess and the seductive saxophones and muted trumpets of the locally bred swing bands that serenaded the blue-lit gymnasium during high-school dances.
Updike here evocatively describes both the ravages of age and the buoyancy of the human spirit. Through the Word, a loving God knows us not as our brokenness deforms us but as new, if not as we once were yet as we will be. There will be new words.