“The average American reads four books a year, and the average American finds this more than sufficient,” Joe Queenan declares in “One for the Books,” his at once reverent and irreverent linked essays about a lifelong addiction to reading.
The thing is, while the average American may suffer (however unknowingly) from literary deprivation, the country is still teeming with passionate readers. Beyond the sheer magnitude of the multibillion-dollar book industry, one indication of this abiding fervor is the latest tidal wave of publications about book love.
Why this outpouring? While people have fretted about the death of the novel for years, the recent closures of independent bookstores and the rise of electronic reading devices have many worrying about the demise of physical books as we know them. This has led to a defensive counterattack, the gist of which is: How can books die when they’re such a perfect delivery system and we love them so much?
Among this year’s bumper crop of metabooks, one standout rises to the status of actual literature: Will Schwalbe’s “The End of Your Life Book Club.” This beautiful, affecting work is both a paean to the physical and emotional aspects of books and a memoir of his remarkable mother — the first female head of Harvard and Radcliffe admissions and a lifelong humanitarian activist who helped found the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children. When Mary Anne Schwalbe was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastasized pancreatic cancer in 2007 at age 73, her son Will, then editor in chief of Hyperion Books, began accompanying her to chemotherapy sessions and oncology appointments at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. To help pass the hours and give a focal point to their conversations, the two constant readers formed a book group of two, which they joked was “the world’s only foodless book club.”
Over the course of two years, they shared and discussed dozens of books “to help Mom on her journey toward death and me on mine to life without her,” never knowing how much time they had left. Their reading list included Wallace Stegner’s “Crossing to Safety,” Colm Toibin’s “Brooklyn,” Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Francaise,” Geraldine Brooks’s “The People of the Book” and Mary Wilder Tileston’s 1884 prayer book, “Daily Strengths for Daily Needs,” all of which “gave us a way to discuss some of the things she was facing and some of the things I was facing.”
Seamlessly and without pretension, Schwalbe integrates literary discussions with global issues and personal memories — a feat that highlights not just how relevant but how integral literature can be to life. Readers will take away a terrific list of suggested titles, as well as precious nuggets of wisdom from this woman who, even before her fatal diagnosis, always read the ends of books first; felt it was important to read about cruelty and dark themes because “they helped her understand the world as it is, not as we wish it would be”; told her son that mixed feelings are natural because “the world is complicated. You don’t have to have one emotion at a time”; and fervently believed that “reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.”