Recently, I attended a dinner party. It was a small, quiet affair with only a handful of people, all older than I. I have always enjoyed talking with people who have seen more of the world, even though I have been lucky to have had many varied experiences of my own. The guests, all readers, were quite excited when they learned I was beginning an editorial career in book publishing. Over the course of the evening, after the conversation had loosened, one of the guests raised an interesting thought which stuck with me. He suggested that today, there are no writers who match the philosophical depth and hard attention to social issues exhibited in earlier generations of Hemingways, Fitzgeralds, Remarques, and Kafkas. Today’s authors, he argued, are pale, sugar-coated reflections of their predecessors, and this concerned him.
In the heat of the moment, I thought this was a rather startling idea. I ran through a mental list of books I had read recently, searching for a solid counter-example, but I, regrettably, came up dry.
Now, however, I would like to venture a book for consideration: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe.
Writing a short review of a book is always an intimidating process (Especially when you occasionally find that the author’s themselves have read your reviews!). This book, however, more so than any other I have reviewed thus far, left me wondering what I could possibly say to sum up its finer qualities.
The End of Your Life Book Club is one of the wisest books I have read in recent memory. On the whole, it meditates on death, dying, and parent-child relationships with considerable alacrity and grace. Interspersed between this motif, however, are countless smaller grains of wisdom, sometimes from the author, other times from his mother. In each chapter, the author uses a book, or several books, as a conduit for his message. Schwalbe takes care to contextualize the books he references, making it easy for his readers to follow along, even if they have not read all of the titles he references.
Schwalbe’s book is the kind of work you have to digest slowly, and read multiple times. The book can be understood as a whole. Yet, each chapter can also be appreciated as a free-standing essay. The End of Your Life Book Club is a memoir you buy, keep on your shelf, and revisit from time to time when an event in your life prompts you to remember it: the death of loved one, a hard day at work or an interaction which tried your patience, a sense of listlessness at the state of the world. This is a deep book, and for this reason, it is possible to drown in it. There is a great deal going on, and many negative reviewers seem to have formulated their opinions of the book without taking in its multifaceted layers.
On the surface, The End of Your Life Book Club revolves around a middle-aged man who finds his mother is dying of incurable pancreatic cancer. All the people involved in the book have what I consider to be fascinating lives: they are professors, teachers, and international aid workers. They run charities which build libraries in Afghanistan. But ultimately, I found, the story of this man and his mother is window dressing for the book’s philosophical heart. Criticism of this book as a soppy, elitist tale, in which a man brags about how wonderful his mother is because he can, misses this key point entirely.
The End of Your Life Book Club is essentially about the author and his mother’s shared philosophies of life. Some of the insights are small–like one of my favorite passages about books:
“One of the many things I love about bound books is their sheer physicality. Electronic books live out of sight and out of mind. But printed books have body, presence. Sure, sometimes they’ll elude you by hiding in improbable places . . . But at other times they’ll confront you and you’ll literally stumble over some tomes you hadn’t thought about in weeks or years. I often seek electronic books, but they never come after me.” (42-43)
Other pieces of wisdom are very large, like Schwalbe’s treatment of bravery.
Yet, despite this book’s impressive depths, the author maintains a clear tone and simple, conversational prose.
The End of Your Life Book Club‘s cover, in many ways, sums up its book with artful precision. Notice how the word “life” pops out at you on the cover. It is red and has its own line while the rest of the title is black. This is because Schwalbe’s book is ultimately about the everyday, yet pressing questions we ask ourselves about life.
Schwalbe is former book publishing executive and the founder of a cooking website: