Literature starts with an act of sharing

The End of Your Life Book Club is the story of Will Schwalbe and his mother Mary Anne Schwalbe after she was diagnosed with cancer. Their mutual love for books and reading is at the heart of this personal journey through life and literature.

Are you convinced that literature needs to be shared, that one does not read for oneself?

I think that one can read for oneself in solitude, and reading in solitude is an enormous pleasure, but there’s also huge pleasure in sharing. In fact, literature starts with an act of sharing because an author writes down a story to share it with other people. I think that a lot of our first experiences with books is sharing, when a parent reads to us at bedtime, so for some people literature is strictly a solitary pleasure, and I completely understand that, but for many people, there is also enormous pleasure in sharing.

Did the writing of this book change anything in the vision you have of your mother?

It did not change the vision I have of my mother, what it did do was allow me to continue our conversations. It made it clear to me in a way it would not have been otherwise clear that just because someone is dead does not mean you cannot keep talking to them.

You and your mother are from two different generations regarding books : she used to read physical books, and you read on electronic devices. Do you think that the digital world lacks the transmission and the memories that physical books can offer or allow?

I do. I think that physical books have unique pleasures to them, but I also think that this, in some ways, is not so new. When you think of someone like Charles Dickens, readers read his book in serial form in the newspaper, which is a very ephemeral form of communication, and when they were done they would buy a copy of his book for the library. I think we are moving towards a similar place where digital books will serve a certain kind of purpose for a certain kind of reader, but there will always be readers who love physical books and there will always be readers who want a physical copy of a book they love, no matter how they first read it.

You call into question the influence that literature has over someone’s state of mind. This is notably the case with Continental Drift by Russell Banks, which you recommended to your mother, and which she considered to be one of the most depressing books she had ever read. Yet afterwards, she wanted to recommended it to a lot of people. Do you now have a different approach to this kind of book ? Would you still recommend it to someone in weak health?

I think that there are different kinds of readers and that for some readers, to read an incredibly depressing book makes them depressed, and for some readers, to read an incredibly depressing book may make them feel more joyful or glad for whatever gifts or advantages they have. I do not think that sickness necessarily changes the kind of reader someone is. It can, but I do not think it does so necessarily, and it is more likely that you will be the same kind of reader you were after you were sick than you were before. If you are someone who loved books that showed the world as it is and showed the full range of human experience—which includes the very depressing, then you may well be that kind of reader afterwards, and it might actually be depressing if people only give you cheery things that you do not feel have the same value as the kind of things you used to love.

After you recommended this book, she told you that she thought it was really depressing, and you wrote on a note next to your bed: “You must choose more cheerful books for the book club”.

Yes, when my mother said that it was so depressing, I did feel very guilty, she was sick and I had depressed her! That is something where she changed my mind about that and that is one of the points in the book where I come to this realization: just because a book is cheerful does not mean it will make you cheerful. In fact, sometimes, it can have the opposite effect.

Earlier today, I typed “Healing power of literature” in the search bar, and more than 14,000 results came up. Do you think that book clubs should be suggested to people suffering from a physical or psychological condition?

I think that one of the great things that reading does, and this is a phrase that I picked up from Alan Bennett’s wonderful book The Uncommon Reader: “Books don’t care who is reading them. All readers are equal.” I think that one of the wonderful things, if you are suffering from any kind of illness, is that when you read a book, you are just a reader. Everywhere else in life, you are a sick person. At the hospital, you are a sick person, when you see your friends, they treat you like a sick person, your family treats you like a sick person, they ask you: “How are you doing? How are you feeling? Are you feeling any better?”, and it constantly emphasizes the fact that you are a sick person. But when you read a book, you are just simply a reader. The book does not care whether you are well or sick, it is just the book.

After recommending this book by Russell Banks, you realized that you should not spare her, even if the book is “difficult” for someone who is sick.

Exactly, to do so would be to treat her again like a sick person. I think that what a lot of people want when they’re undergoing an illness is their life. They want to live, they want to be treated by people the way they were treated before, they do not want to be stigmatized or cuddled. Reading and talking about books, it gives you something else to talk about other than the sickness. Sure, sometimes you want to talk about it, but not all the time, nobody wants to talk about that all the time.

Did you perpetuate the book club with your friends or family?

This was a pretty special experience because we were forced to keep coming back to that room week after week and to have a certain kind of conversation. I do talk about books with tons of people and I have kind of informal book clubs, in the same way that that was informal. There is a certain number of people in my life where we are constantly discussing books; there is a wonderful woman in Los Angeles, she is 94 years old, we have friends in common, and I find myself trading books with her constantly, we are on the phone with each other all the time.

Which recently released books would you recommend?

There is a recent book that I loved by Ruth Ozeki, called A Tale for the Time Being, it is fantastic and I recommend it. There was a book I read last year that I just fell head over heels in love with, called The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam. He is a Canadian writer, the novel is set in Saigon in the 1960s based on his family’s history and it is really tremendous. I just started the new Dave Eggers, The Circle, and I am enjoying that quite a lot so far. I also found that there is extraordinary writing in Young Adult literature, books like The Fault in Our Stars by John Green or Wonder by R.J. Palacio, these are great books for any age.