Saturday, July 6, 2013

A Book Book

There's an up side and a down side to reading a book about books.  On one hand, it's about reading; on the other, by the end, my "need to read" list had grown again.

I first heard of Will Schwalbe's memoir in an article he wrote for the New York Times, I believe, describing the "book club for two" he shared with his mother while waiting with her for her treatments after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  Schwalbe was an avid reader from childhood, growing up in a family of readers.  The time he spent with his mother, especially once she faced chemotherapy, naturally lead to talk about what they were reading. They decided to choose books to read and discuss together over the course of what was more than a year of her illness. 

They alternated between recent publications and classics, mostly but not entirely fiction.  Often each would choose a title, and they would swap the two before discussing them. Among the titles they shared were Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader, Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, Lahiri's short story collection Unaccustomed Earth, Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book, Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture, and Sheila Weller's Girls Like Us, all books I'd read and enjoyed, many with my book club.  They also read Maugham, John O'Hara, Joan Didion, Alice Munro and many more. 

Along with their readings, he writes about his own reading life and their discussion of other books, stories, and poems they had read--Mary Oliver, Lewis Carol, Nancy Drew and Gone With the Wind.  Throughout the time they have together, his mother's spiritual faith counters his own doubt or disinterest in religion.  She keeps her copy of Daily Strength for Daily Needs by Mary Tileston throughout her illness, a year's worth of daily devotions.  Their reading often deals with death, though he is often reluctant to talk about his mother's own imminent death.  He also reads material that help him to consider how best to bring up topics.  (Don't, for instance, ask a terminally ill person "How are you doing?"  Ask, instead, "Would you like me to ask how you are feeling today?")

The book provides much good for thought, not only about reading and death but life, love, family, and faith. As I read, I not only marked passages to which I hoped to return, but I started my own list in the back of works mentioned that I wanted to read myself.  Once I reached the end, I found that the author had thoughtfully included a list of works discussed, which I would have found if, like Schwalbe's mother, I had always chosen to read the end first.


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