The End of Your Life Book Club

As I wrote in the “About this project” section of the blog, I started reading a lot more after my mother died. She had always been an avid reader of the type of literary classics that end up in leather-bound collectors editions. As a kid I wasn’t too interested in them. But what, more than anything, got me going on this big reading project was the great sense of one’s own mortality that losing a parent can bring. That’s why the premise of The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe sounds very familiar. 

“What are you reading?”

That’s the question Will Schwalbe asks his mother, Mary Anne, as they sit in the waiting room of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In 2007, Mary Anne returned from a humanitarian trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan suffering from what her doctors believed was a rare type of hepatitis. Months later she was diagnosed with a form of advanced pancreatic cancer, which is almost always fatal, often in six months or less. 

This is the inspiring true story of a son and his mother, who start a “book club” that brings them together as her life comes to a close. Over the next two years, Will and Mary Anne carry on conversations that are both wide-ranging and deeply personal, prompted by an eclectic array of books and a shared passion for reading. Their list jumps from classic to popular, from poetry to mysteries, from fantastic to spiritual. The issues they discuss include questions of faith and courage as well as everyday topics such as expressing gratitude and learning to listen. Throughout, they are constantly reminded of the power of books to comfort us, astonish us, teach us, and tell us what we need to do with our lives and in the world. Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.

Now before you can shout “Mitch Albom ripoff!” (and, yes, he has a blurb on the back cover) I would argue that Book Club is a lot more like the dreaded plot of The Bucket List than it is Tuesdays with Morrie. The premise, it appears, is more about getting something done before you die, while in comparison Tuesday is about the narrator gleaning aphoristic wisdom nuggets from a terminal sage. (Confession: I have neither read Tuesdays with Morrie nor seen The Bucket List. They exist only as cultural touchstones in my head.)

But all the pandering to the Chicken Soup crowd aside, I like the premise of The End of Your Life Book Club. If you had just a few months to live, what books would you read? Confession: Probably not The End of Your Life Book Club.

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