“Reading isn’t the opposite of doing, it’s the opposite of dying.”
When you love reading and are surrounded by (or at least have one or two in your life) with others who love reading, your life becomes a book club quite naturally. You read, you talk about what you’re reading and what you’ve read, you share ideas, thoughts and books. Even if you don’t necessarily read the same book at the same time. Those traditional “everybody read this book and then we discuss it” book clubs have somehow always rubbed me the wrong way.
Will Schwalbe and his mother had a book club somewhere between the idea of “our whole life has been a book club” and a traditional one. Just the two of them. A book club that had nothing and yet everything to do with Will’s mother’s, Mary Anne’s, pancreatic cancer, which was diagnosed at a point where she was supposed to have maybe four to six months of time left. She however lived for two more years, going through chemo and other treatments. A whole lot of the book club actually happened in the outpatient center waiting for chemos and doctor’s appointments etc. In fact, that’s where it started.
From the very beginning this true story totally engulfed me. Not that it was a page turner, not really, but there were so many aspects to the book, that simply drew me in on a very deep level. For one, and the main reason I even got interested in the book, there were the books those two were reading. My list of books to read grew significantly while reading this one. And then there was the whole setting of terminal illness, treatments, the relationship between the mother and the son, all about the people and their realizations and Mary Anne’s wisdom. It all made be pause and reflect here and there and constantly, making reading the book quite slow.
I made as many as 35 (exactly, it seems!) bookmark notes in the book while reading it. Highly irregular for me, but this one I really wanted to be able to return to through some passages I found especially good or hitting home. My first note is marked on the very first sentence of the book: “We are nuts about the mocha in the waiting room at Memorial Sloan-Kettering’ outpatient care center.” Oh, I’m nuts about the cappucinos of Espresso House, but the mocha was not the reason for the note. It’s just that the book had me with its very opening line. The best ones do.
Actually, that thought is in the book too, at the very beginning of the second chapter, “Appointment in Samarra”. Each chapter title marks something Will and Mary Anne read – a book, a flyer, an article, a new version of an old story. Will and Mary Anne were suckers for opening lines, too. And books about books and reading. And Mary Anne shared my habit of checking out the ending first. This, by the way, is a learning point for me when reading in Kindle. Of course I can go the end of the book in Kindle too, but then it messes the furthest read point. So I don’t. So I endure the suspence on a much more intense level than with paper books where I can just flip throught the pages occasionally to ease my mind.
While books and reading were definitely the salt and sugar of the book, the setting of cancer and dying threw me right back to the time when my mother was diagnosed and treated and dying and died. It was a difficult time for me – us all, obviously, but I had my own issues with mom and they pretty much exploded at that time, making my relationship with mom cordial at best, at the time of her death. Mary Anne and my mom shared a bunch of qualities and then again were like night and day.
My relationship with my mom was much like Will’s with his, until the ugliness of things surfaced. While Will realized that part of the process of his mom was dying was mourning not just her death, but also the death of his dreams of things to come, I realized that I was mourning a mother I hadn’t had. Not to get me wrong – I was close with my mom. In fact, the whole problem lies exactly there: I was too close with my mom. It was a codependence that ripped me off my integrity as a person.
Funny how little things can make you feel like you totally can relate to someone else’s life and story. I was in the middle of a meeting when my mom called me to let me know about her cancer. Will was in the middle of a book fair, working. Will found himself crying for the first time for his mom on a flight – though his mom at that point still very much alive. When my mom died, I cried properly for the first time a couple weeks later, on board an airplane, headed to Las Palmas to bury my mother.
Also, Will’s mom was quite religious about thank you notes. My dad, too. Or at least thank you phone calls. Where Will spent Christmas Day writing notes, I called my grandparents and godparents to thank them for their Christmas gifts. I hated those calls. I felt awkward and apart from my grandma, the receivers of them seemed to feel a bit awkward (or maybe it was all just me). My grandma took the opportunity to go on and on about what she’d been thinking when buying the gift, how extraordinary she had found it and “isn’t it just the best thing since sliced bread?” And I’d feel even more awkward. My dad called to remind me about these calls still when I was over thirty, until I once totally snapped about it. Will found later on, that there’s a great joy in thanking. I still rather give than thank. I think I’m traumatized 😉
It also seemed to me, I was a pretty similar kid as Will. Preferring the indoors with books to the outdoors with sports. Rather reading and talking about books and music with his friends, huddled in his room, than outside doing sports. Not that those two necessarily rule each other out, just as a preference. I was a pretty lonely kid, with books as my best friends, but I do remember spending hours with my few friends just reading together. We’d swap books – which is how I found e.g. Nancy Drew and the Dana Girls series – and read some more. Then we’d go for a swim, play some badminton outside, go skiing, and play cards. Or go out to the lake in a row boat and read there!
The list of books mentioned and talked of in this book is so long that I won’t bother to even start. A few are worth mentioning, though, the first one being The Hobbit. Tolkien has never really been my thing, but I think I figured out why: Will read it while being delirious with fever. I think I might have enjoyed it like that too 😉 Will did return to The Hobbit as an adult though, and noted that it still had the same power over him. I thought I might give Hobbit a chance, maybe, some day. Possibly. I never got past page 150 of the Lord of the Rings, and if a book takes that long (or longer, I suppose) to begin and draw me in, it’s not my kind of book.
One book that, due to its nature as a daily passage book, is mentioned and referred to throughout the book. “Daily Strength for Daily Needs” is the title of this book. Mary Anne gets an old used copy of it and somehow the worn book with markings and dog ears makes it a remarkable book in itself. It is quite religious in its passages, having some Christian thoughts and some non for each day. Mary Anne immediately falls in love with the book and carries it with her always. Sometimes she leaves it lying out in the open, opened at a certain page, for Will to find and read too. She doesn’t push, for Will is not religious, but she offers. And the book itself intrigues Will too.
Even though I read a lot in Kindle, I still love those actual paper books. I love having a library, I love seeing and touching and smelling books, and I very much love my old copies of books, many of which I haven’t even read. There’s something about the physicality of a book, especially one that has been owned before. Like the previous owner(s) have left something of their life and story behind in the book. Most of my old books belonged to my grandparents or great-grandparents. We’re a pretty booky family, just like Will’s too. He also shares my notion that eBooks are good for consuming certain types of books on the go, but there’s a lot that you simply need to have physically.
One of Mary Anne’s many projects was gathering funds to build a library in Afganistan. Mary Anne traveled the world taking part in all sorts of humanitarian aid projects and fought for women’s rights where there were none and towards the end of her life, when she could channel her strength to one thing anymore, she chose to make this library her first and foremost priority and was determined to see it through before she died. She more or less did too.
When asked, why this library was so important to her, she answered not that because she loves books and thinks their important but because “sometimes even before medicine and shelter-they want books for their children.” Because she had seen the power of books, not just in her own family’s priviledged life, but specifically for those less fortunate in this world. “When ever you read something wonderful, it cahnges your life, even if you aren’t aware of it,” Mary Anne noted a bit later in the book. Indeed! Even when you read something not so wonderful.
Another one of my favorite quotes about reading comes not from Mary Anne or Will, but is form the book The Uncommon Reader, quoted in this book. In the passage, the Queen of England says: “Books are not about passing time. They’re about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting time to pass, Sir Kevin, one just wishes one had more of it. If one wanted to pass time, one could go to New Zeeland.” Now ain’t that the truth!
Mary Anne lived her life going to places most people don’t dare go because of the war and the unrest. Places my husband wouldn’t let me go for fear of something happening to me. Still she never regarded herself a brave woman – though most other people did. Her notion of bravery goes in the lines of “bravery is not somehing you do because you do without fear; it’s something you do in spite of it”. One could then draw the conclusion that Mary Anne was not afraid of dying, not when she went to those places and not when she suffered her cancer, and she said so much herself too. She lived as much, too. My mom, too, said so, but in the end she feared death more than anything.
Dealing with death, you inevitably think about loneliness too. The loneliness that will result from the death of someone you love. Growing up, mom was my best friend (something she accomplished by guilt tripping and isolating me, the latter being maybe not so calculated, though). As I noted, I was a lonely kid. I had a few good friends, but one after the other they all moved away. I spent a lot of time alone with my books and little sister. Will touched the subject of loneliness while he and Mary Anne were reading the book Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki. There, a teacher says: “Loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern world, so full of freedom, independence and our own egoistical selves.” Will thought it true. Me, I’m not entirely sure.
One thing is for sure, though. If you have siblings, you are never entirely alone. Will has two siblings. I have a sister, who was a total nuisance to me when growing up (though of course I loved her even then!), and whom I almost lost from my life (mostly thanks to my mom) at the point when mom was dying, but who has always been there for me, like I’ve been there for her. At the era of personalized cell phone ring tones, my sister’s tone on my phone was the Friends theme song. As said, we had a bit of a fall out but managed to correct things later on and currently talk weekly over messenger (as she lives on the other side of the Atlantic with her family). She’s the one I have my “book club” with. We don’t always talk about books, but often we do.
We also talk a lot about our kids, oviously. Mine are already adults, or almost. Her’s are only starting their school career, one just finishing first grade, the other one still a preschooler. Naturally we talk a whole lot about raising kids – and about our parents and how we were raised. Will writes about this when reflecting on a book called “The Price of Salt”, that made him remember something from his childhood. “You piece together your parents’ child-raising theories by analyzing later why they did what they did. One of the many great things about having siblings is that you get to do this in a communal, Talmudic way.” True dat! My only regret is that with our age difference and very different lives, we have only got to this with my sister, when my kids are practically grown. Then again, its just as important to me as a person as it is for making decisions about your own ways of raising children. So better late than never, I suppose!
While being hugely different in so many ways, my sister and I are still rather similar in some ways. She is meticulous and religious about rules and wants to do the child-raising thing by the book (which book, though, is sometimes the question) wheras I paint with the big brush. “Lite ditåt”, my grandmother used to say. It means more or less on the spot, close enough. One thing we have in common is the need to devour stories, read books, to widen our horizons, to understand this world and people better. Here my husband is quite different: he reads to learn “stuff”, things. And a vast knowledge about all sorts of things he has too! One of the things I fell in love with. And this is something I realized while reading this book and how Will describes the differences between Stieg Larsson’s detective characters and their ways of acquiring information and understanding.
“While Lisbeth Salander finds what she needs on the computer, Bloomkvist looks to books and genealogies and photographs […] for his discoveries. The two characters compliment each other, as do their approaches to knowledge.” I think this very much goes for me and my husband too.
At the end of the book Mary Anne dies, obviously. Surrounded by her family. In this book, you didn’t need to flip to the end to understand that. Will wrote his book, which he had started to plan already while his mom was still alive, Mary Anne even giving him some notes for it. She did love to be in the middle of things and influence pretty much everything. At some point while reading the book I simply had to google her too. She did seem to be quite a remarkable woman! Read and be inspired!
“We’re all in the en-of-our-life book club, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be the last, each conversation the final one.”