Life, Death and Books


“I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens.” ― Woody Allen

In preparation for a book club, I just finished The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe (luckily, all the members of our group are healthy!).  The book tells of the informal, two-person book club that the author creates with his mother, Mary Anne, after they find out she has pancreatic cancer, one of the most quick and deadly forms of the disease.  Mary Anne was a fighter.  She did humanitarian work with child soldiers, was shot at in Afghanistan and worked in refugee camps in Thailand.  She approached cancer like she did the rest of life—she wasn’t going down without a fight.  About two years passed between her diagnosis and her death and in this time she continued to live as fully as her body would allow.  The books she read with her son helped them to learn more about each other (even though they already had a close relationship).  They learned how books can teach us about life and death and how to get through both of them.  In reading their picks, the two discover that we can always find ways to apply a book to our own lives, even when it might not seem to fit at first glance.

In a similar vein is The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.  However in this case, the author does not have the luxury of extra time and preparation for her husband’s death.  John Dunne dies of a heart attack suddenly at the dinner table.  We are told at the very beginning:  “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”  What unfolds is Didion’s coming to terms with his absence.  The term “magical thinking” is the belief that one event happens as the result of another, even though the two events are not at all linked.  (For example:  If I make this light, I’ll get a raise today.)  If I don’t give away his shoes, she thinks, he might come back and wear them.  (Schwalbe also experiences magical thinking.  If we see the manatees today, Mom will have a good day, he thinks.)  Being a writer, Didion researches and reads throughout her grieving.  She offers insight into the tricks the mind plays on us when dealing with the death of a close loved one.

Schwalbe notes:  Since we never can say what will happen tomorrow, any book can be the last book we read.  (All the more reason not to read anything that doesn’t capture you within the first fifty or so pages, if you ask me.  Why spend time slogging through a book, when putting it down and grabbing something different will make you happier?)

If you could only read one more book, which book would that be?  Would you read something new, or revisit an old favorite? 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great article. Would be reading the first book you mentioned since it seemed interesting. Indeed, I wouldn't want to waste my time on a bad book. I'd rather reisit my most-loved classics :)