October 2012

Will Schwalbe

A book lover to the very end
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What self-respecting reader isn't a sucker for a great book about other great books? The End of Your Life Book Club is that much and more.

After Will Schwalbe’s 73-year-old mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007, he began accompanying her to many of her chemotherapy treatments and doctor’s appointments. Both book lovers—Schwalbe is the former editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books—they often passed the time by reading, talking about reading or both.

Their informal waiting-room book club endured for the remaining two years of her life, and led to this tender tribute to Schwalbe’s mother and also to the universal power of books to unite and heal. In it, he chronicles the many books that he and his mother, Mary Anne, read together, and how those books shaped their final years together.

“In our society, after someone dies, there’s a period where you’re almost supposed to stop talking about her,” Schwalbe says from his New York City apartment, where he lives with his longtime partner David. “It’s a great joy in life to talk about the people you love. My main impetus was to show how books can connect and bring people closer. My mother taught me so much and I wanted to share it.”

A small, gray-haired dynamo with super-sized energy and opinions, Mary Anne Schwalbe served as director of admissions at Harvard University and Radcliffe, and founding director of the Women’s Refugee Commission. She and her husband raised three voracious readers who, as Schwalbe recalls in the book, learned early on that reading was a priority: “On weekends, when Mom and Dad had settled into the living room, each with a stack of books, we had two options: We could sit and read, or we could disappear until mealtime.”

Sometimes, the books mother and son read were purely escapist (like P.G. Wodehouse and a 1949 beach read called Brat Farrar). That came in handy when Mary Anne was enduring what she called one of her “not great” days.

Other times, the books allowed them to broach tough topics. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking helped Schwalbe understand the importance of acknowledging his mother’s pain. Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety led to talks about what Schwalbe’s father would do once Mary Anne died. “It was a shorthand way to talk about my father,” Schwalbe says. “It was too painful to talk about head-on.”

But most of all, their impromptu book club of two allowed them to simply be, as mother and son.

“We weren’t a sick person and a well person,” Schwalbe says. “We were just two readers. That was a revelation.”

Certainly Schwalbe knows his books, having spent several years in publishing. He left Hyperion to start a cooking website, Cookstr.

“The best thing about leaving publishing is now I get to read,” Schwalbe laughs. No longer a slave to a stack of manuscripts, he finally gets to indulge in what he calls “reading promiscuously.” He and his mother also chose their books haphazardly, drifting between genres.

“We were given books; we knocked them over on a bookstore shelf and then bought them,” he says.

Schwalbe realized he wanted to write about their book club while his mother was still alive. She initially demurred when he told her his idea, but the next day began emailing him her thoughts, along with a list of books they’d read together. The rest of his family soon was on board, too.

“They encouraged me to write the book I wanted to write,” he says, even though that meant laying bare some incredibly personal experiences in order to paint the full picture of his family.

One of Schwalbe’s favorite outcomes of writing this book so far is that early copies have inspired people to start reading with their family. He got an email recently from a woman who has started a book club with her grandson, a teen who is reading The Hunger Games to her.

“That made me so happy,” he says. It’s a fitting tribute to a woman who died at 75 but left an enduring legacy.

“There are a lot of extraordinary people in this country and most don’t get an obituary in the New York Times,” Schwalbe says. “Mom was not somebody who was in the New York Times. She was one of those extraordinary, ordinary people.”

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