Ruminations on Life and Death in Books in Will Schwalbe’s “Books for Living” and “The End Of Your Life Book Club”

Myra here.

These two books will definitely make my top ten list of best reads this year. I am glad that we have the perfect reading theme to feature both of Will Schwalbe’s memoir in books.


Books For Living: A Reader’s Guide to Life

Written by: William Schwalbe
Published by: Two Roads, 2017 Literary Award: Randy Shilts Award Nominee (2017)
ISBN: 0385353545 (ISBN13: 9780385353540)
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

I read this book while I was in Munich during the summer (sometime in early June of this year). I read it fairly quickly and enjoyed Schwalbe’s ode on reading. It is indeed a book for bibliophiles and I feel gratified seeing quite a number of familiar titles that I have already read in his book chapters – which are, of course, aptly titled after a name of a book that he wanted to discuss in that section – such as The Girl On The Train, David Copperfield, The Little Prince, 1984, A Little Life, Reading Lolita in Tehran, “More More More” Said the Baby. A few of the titles are in my bookshelves waiting to be read such as Stuart Little, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Wonder, Song of Solomon.

However, I didn’t feel particularly compelled to seek out the other titles he talked about and found myself somewhat distanced by his ruminations on most of the novels and his reflections on them. What did move me, however, were his thoughts about reading, particularly as we ask people the classically-invasive but seemingly-innocuous question: What are you reading? For my favourite quotes, I used Typorama – because it’s cute. 🙂

The entire book is also a celebration of how much the books that we read change us in one way or another:

While I do enjoy my dose of memoir and the occasional non-fiction, I am by and large, a fiction kind of gal – which is why I love finding these words in the book:

One of the things that I love most about reading is how much it affords me a much needed cone of silence in a world that is filled with static and white noise. Schwalbe affirms that here as well:

A few weeks back, I also shared this quote with my graduate students as we reflected on all types of knowledge being interconnected – that they are all part of a web of truths woven in the universe:

I am also glad how Schwalbe ended his book by claiming that as readers we also have a responsibility. Hence, we can not just be moved by something we read and fail to act on it; that its ultimate purpose is not just to change minds and hearts, but also to ultimately change the world through little actions that would gradually move us towards being better versions of ourselves.

Indeed: “I read to live. I read for life.”

The End Of Your Life Book Club

Written by: Will Schwalbe
Published by: Two Roads Books, 2012
ISBN: 1444706381 (ISBN13: 9781444706383)
Bought my own copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.

This book found me at the exact right time when I needed its beauty and grace. Unlike the first book that I read with a measure of clinical detachment, this one just caught me sideways, gripped my sensibilities from the very first page, and never really let go. It is a book that would remain with me for a long time to come – and one that I would most likely re-read (and I don’t do that often) if my soul needs comforting.

In this memoir, Will Schwalbe talked about his two-person book club that he shared with his mother who was dying of pancreatic cancer. A voracious and thoughtful reader, Mary Ann Schwalbe would often talk books with Will who was in the publishing business at the time, and they pretty much made it official as Will accompanied his mother for her doctor visits and chemotherapy sessions. There was something unbelievably raw and fearless in the way that Will documented his mother’s journey. As he noted:

I knew I was holding in my hands something special when I could not stop talking about this book to anyone who would care to listen. I suppose a large part of my visceral response to the book has to do with the fact that my father-in-law just passed away from prostate cancer. In fact, we were celebrating his 40-days-after-his-death when I finished reading this book, and I felt a certain kind of peace. The circumstances are largely different, of course, but there are resonances that spoke to me.

I was especially in awe of Mary Ann Schwalbe’s life. She was the Dean of Admissions in Harvard and Radcliffe at a time when women were very rarely given the opportunity to hold those kinds of administrative and leadership positions, especially in Ivy League schools, yet she handled both her family and professional life without fanfare, no sense of privileged entitlement. It was just the way it is. She was also a humanitarian at the very core of her spirit, tirelessly working for refugees (women and children). Even until the very end of her life, she was deeply committed to build a library in Afghanistan, which she managed to do, because nothing is quite impossible to a woman with clear vision and unflagging determination. One would wonder then how she found the time to read – as she noted:

I also am quite familiar with most of the novels that Will and Mary Ann discussed in their “book club”: Gilead, The Hobbit, The Uncommon Reader, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, A Thousand Splendid Suns among others.

The book also made me reflect on the things that I value most in life – and whether I am taking active steps to consistently move towards that goal of living not just for mere survival, but living with a sense of purpose. The book reminded me of my constant search for meaning as well as the quiet grace of gratitude and things coming to you at its own perfect time. The book quieted my frazzled and stressed-out nerves, and soothed my soul. It was a book blessing: a gift from the universe.

Unlike the first book, this one made me immediately want to read some of the books that mother and son discussed and which are waiting to be read on my shelves – especially titles that fit into our current reading theme such as these two:

It also made me want to find these following books soonest – I only own one book in this list (the Bolaño one):

And while my TBR stack has veritably exploded because of this book, I am reminded of these lines which moved me tremendously:

Here’s to inviting more books into our lives.

3 Comments on Ruminations on Life and Death in Books in Will Schwalbe’s “Books for Living” and “The End Of Your Life Book Club”

  1. Okay, this was beautiful and moving and I *love* your reflections on The End of Your Life Book Club (and will probably read it soon because mothers + readying = my ❤️), but I need to know what that dessert/dish is pictured with the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • readying = reading, btw. I mean, seriously, autocorrect fixes everything but the things I want it to

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Akilah! 🙂 It’s the churros con chocolate with vanilla ice cream in one of our favourite Mexican restaurants here in Singapore. Seriously sinful, but oh so good. You have to have to have to read The End Of Your Life Book Club and will look forward to reading your thoughts on it. 🙂 I actually have this in my bookshelf for years now. I am glad that it has found me at the right time.

        Liked by 1 person

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