Every year there is a school project that brings students to Guelph Public Library researching the importance of books and reading. A worthy project. Information staff rely on articles from online databases and books like:
Alberto Manguel – A Reader on Reading
Northrop Frye – The Educated Imagination
Harold Bloom – How to Read and Why
Catherine Ross – Reading Matters
David Ulin – The Lost Art of Reading
John Dana – The Supreme Importance of Reading
This month our library book club decided to read the book The End Of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. While this book is a tender and moving tribute to the author’s remarkable and inspirational mother, it is also illustrates (in a clear and engaging fashion) the power of books and reading. When Will’s mother Mary Anne is diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer, which is almost always fatal, they form a “book club” and discuss various titles as they wait patiently for treatments and specialists. As Will quips, they had “the world’s only foodless book club.”
While this memoir would appeal to readers who were inspired by Tuesdays With Morrie and The Last Lecture, it would also fascinate those who love delving into books and unwrapping their themes and distinct styles.
Mary Anne Schwalbe throughout her life was a “doer,” as she actively strived to make the world a better place. She belonged to the first generation of American women who were taught at school that they could be anything and achieve anything they wanted. She was the hub of the Schwalbe family, had been the Director of Admissions at Harvard and the founding director of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, volunteered for several organizations, and took numerous trips on behalf of refugees. She had an enormous amount of energy, management and communication skills. In Will’s assessment, his mother spent her life “smiling at strangers” as she was endlessly welcoming. Even after her diagnosis Mary Anne continued to campaign for humanitarian causes, as she was determined to establish libraries in Afghanistan. She would still give up her seat on the bus to the elderly and refused a wheelchair at the airport, claiming that wheelchairs should be reserved for those who really need them.
Will’s book is a gift to his mother, introducing a world of readers to a great role model who truly believed that one person can and should make a difference (as all humans have an obligation to each other). The author also shares with his audience the importance of the reading experience and sharing what you learned and discovered with others. Surprisingly, I did not cry while reading this book, even when Will recounted his mother’s final hours (a full two years after her initial diagnosis). Even members of my book club who had dealt with cancer directly found that this book was not depressing but rather a celebration of a life well-lived. It gave the book club members an excuse to share personal experiences with cancer and to discuss the concept of a fulfilling life, grief, and faith. One of my favourite lines in the book was Mary Anne commenting, with a smile, that heathen prayers were worth more because heathens prayed less.
At the end of the book, the author kindly included an appendix which lists all the authors, books, plays and stories mentioned by the mother-son “book club.” It is natural while reading this book, to start compiling a personal reading list, as the discussion of certain books would have instant appeal. Even some Canadian books made the list, including Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, and Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness.
What did I learn from the mother-son dynamic book club duo and my own club’s discussion about the importance of reading, books, and book clubs? Books have the power to:
● Comfort and instill hope
When Mary Anne and Will read and shared books they ceased to be the sick person and the well person, they were simply two people entering a new world together. There was no need to retreat or cocoon in the face of a cancer diagnosis.
● Help us talk to one another and initiate conversations
Books give us something to talk about when we don’t want to talk about ourselves. It gave Will an opportunity to ask questions about his mother’s beliefs and past. Mary Anne wishes Will were more religious as her Presbyterian religion gives her profound pleasure and comfort. She constantly asks herself: what is the Lord asking of me in this situation? Her religion reinforces that everyone is here for one another. Through the book club Mary Anne finally gets Will to talk about faith, religion and even bible stories by discussing the books themes and characters.
Every great religion shares a reverence for books, so books can bring people of different religions together or at least remind them of the obligation we all have toward each other (the golden rule being you should love your neighbor as yourself).
● Symbolize knowledge and freedom
In refugee camps people ask for books, sometimes before medicine and shelter. In North America , many kids take education for granted. According to Mary Anne, when you’re from a poor country, you know at education can open doors. You may have a physical disability, but reading books reminds you that your mind is sharp.
● Relax the reader
The books that you truly love have to surround you in print form. The mere sight of them offers comfort. In Mary Anne’s opinion, electronic books are in the “out of sight, out of mind” category. Ultimately, reading books helped Mary Anne stay strong on her journey towards death, and helped Will to live without his mother. When a book club comes together they are giving each other the gift of time to savor, ponder, discuss, challenge and enjoy.
● Educate and inspire
Kids are more likely to read more if parents read themselves and read to their children when they are young. By reading books we can take part in the human conversation, and we will know what we need to do in life, and be educated enough to grasp it.
● Equalize, as part of the appeal of reading lay in its indifference
All readers are equal. Books do not care who is reading, the condition of the copy, or whether you finish it or not.
● Raise important themes
Themes vary depending on the book. In this book, the reader can address fate and the effects of the choices people make, feminism, grief, sexual orientation, how to deal with the dying, and the importance of expressing gratitude and using your own talents for good, etc.
Ultimately, I believe this book can inspire you to be a better person. That’s one good reason to pick up this memoir. The reason why I will recommend it to another reader is that I strongly believe in the message that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal. I also feel sure that anyone who appreciates books will love The End Of Your Life Book Club simply because the book itself is so in love with books. It will encourage you to read books you may never have picked up before and see their charm…and that’s the magic of book clubs.