The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

  • Some of my books should be awarded their own frequent-flier miles, they’ve traveled so much
  • We didn’t read only “great books,” we read casually and promiscuously and whimsically
  • As we talked more about , we soon found ourselves discussing the book’s epigraph, which is, in fact, a speech from a play by W. Somerset Maugham, a writer on whose stories we would both later jointly binge. Maugham’s parable is a retelling of a classic Iraqi tale. The speaker is Death: There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
  • You can only do what you can, and what doesn’t get done, just doesn’t get done.” Mom was forever giving me advice that she would never herself take.
  • Everything would be all right, everything would be possible, anything could be salvaged or averted, as long as we all kept running around.
  • Mom also liked that the literary allusions were foreign to her; neither she nor I had read or often even heard of most of the writers Bolaño referenced or lampooned. The experience appealed to her curiosity—the way you can be fascinated by a story that you overhear, on a train or in a coffee shop, about people you don’t know, when the storyteller is highly animated, full of passion and wit.13414676
  • When we disagreed about a book she loved, Mom would just furrow her brow. It wasn’t that she didn’t think you had a right to your opinion—of course you did. It was just that she felt you were missing the main point—you were focused on one thing when you should have been focused on another. It was as if you were critiquing a restaurant based on the decor, while she was talking about the food.
  • We found ourselves discussing the three kinds of fateful choices that exist in the two books: the ones characters make knowing that they can never be undone; the ones they make thinking they can but learn they can’t; and the ones they make thinking they can’t and only later come to understand, when it’s too late, when “nothing can be undone,” that they could have.
  • When you couldn’t decide between two things, she suggested you choose the one that allowed you to change course if necessary. Not the road less traveled but the road with the exit ramp. I think that’s why we had all moved, at different times in our lives, to various foreign lands without giving much thought to it. If you stayed at home, you might not get the opportunity to go to that place again. But if you went, you could always come back.
  • 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: in a box full of old picture frames, say, or in the laundry basket, wrapped in a sweatshirt. 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. They may make me feel, but I can’t feel them. They are all soul with no flesh, no texture, and no weight. They can get in your head but can’t whack you upside it.
  • For me, there’s something about planes that isolates and intensifies sadness, the way a looking glass can magnify the sun until it grows unbearably hot and burns
  • In the summer, Mom and I had read slender books. Now we were reading one long book after another. Maybe that was a way of expressing hopefulness—you had to have a lot of time left if you were going to start reading Bolaño, or Thomas, or Halberstam. Even the Hosseini had heft.
  • I often forget that other people’s stories aren’t simply introductions to my own more engaging, more dramatic, more relevant, and better-told tales, but rather ends in themselves, tales I can learn from or repeat or dissect or savor
  • He was the smartest and best-read person any of us had ever known, but he wore his learning so lightly and had such curiosity about other people that he had the ability to make everyone around him feel smart and well-read
  • thought of water torture (wrongly called Chinese water torture), the medieval torment in which you are supposedly driven mad waiting for the next drop of water to plunk on your forehead
  • Soon it was time to leave chemo. It was then that I witnessed the peculiar dance that takes place at the elevator bank. When an elevator arrives, age may still go before beauty, but illness goes before health, chairs before canes, canes before the caneless, the wobbly before the surefooted. After you, my dear Alphonse. No, after you. No wonder it took so long to get an elevator.
  • There was one sure way to avoid being assigned an impromptu chore in our house—be it taking out the trash or cleaning your room—and that was to have your face buried in a book. Like churches during the Middle Ages, books conferred instant sanctuary. Once you entered one, you couldn’t be disturbed. They didn’t give you immunity from prosecution if you’d done something wrong—just a temporary reprieve. But we quickly learned you had to both look and be completely engrossed—just flipping pages didn’t count
  • Mom was always a little amazed at parents who thought their kids should be reading more but who never read themselves
  • Dad worked. Mom worked. Several decades before today’s crop of wildly scheduled children, we were left pretty much to our own devices, mildly supervised by a succession of exchange students and recent graduates
  • Mom never referred to herself as a working mother. She was a mother. And she worked. “People don’t talk about working fathers,” she once said to me.
  • Mom also had a slightly socialist streak when it came to our possessions—again, mandatory sharing. My father was given to more Stalinist purges, in which any toy not properly stored was immediately put out with the trash
  • The jacket, if it had ever had one, was long gone. The book was stained and foxed, and its olive linen boards had turned sickly institutional beige.
  • Some authors fill every inch of the canvas—everything is described and detailed; anything not mentioned doesn’t exist. Like a real-estate-listing writer, if something is worth saying, certain authors say it. (If a real estate listing doesn’t say “sunny,” you can bet the apartment is stygian dark; if it doesn’t say it has an elevator, it’s a walk-up; and if it doesn’t say “dry,” well then, a river runs through it
  • Just imagine that you are awakened tonight by someone in your family who says to you, ‘Put the things you treasure most in one small bag that you can carry. And be ready in a few minutes. We have to leave our home and we will have to make it to the nearest border.’ What mountains would you need to cross? How would you feel? How would you manage? Especially if across the border was a land where they didn’t speak your language, where they didn’t want you, where there was no work, and where you were confined to camps for months or years.
  • There’s something extraordinary about the first city you love
  • Also, how could anyone who loves books not love a book that is itself so in love with books?
  • and the year in England when Nina drank so much Ribena blackberry currant syrup that we dubbed her Nina Ribena
  • I was learning that when you’re with someone who is dying, you may need to celebrate the past, live the present, and mourn the future all at the same time.
  • Accidental: superstitiously, I almost always feel the need to buy any book that I knock over. And
  • I was reminded of visiting Disneyland, The Happiest Place on Earth, and seeing some families ready to tear one another’s eyes out—the kids sobbing inconsolably from greed and exhaustion and the stress of it all, the parents looking daggers at each other, the older children rolling their eyes or clearly stoned out of their minds. Every now and then you even heard someone say a variation of the following: “We traveled all this way and paid all this money, and you are going to have fun, do you hear me? You will have fun right now, damnit, or I’ll pack up the whole family and drive us home this instant, and we’ll never come back again.”
  • Okay, so I’d suggested a book that might have been a bit dark. This was not even a particularly big offense in the pantheon of book club crimes, where the worst sin one could commit was not to read the book in question—or, even worse, to lie about having read the book when, in fact, you’d simply seen the movie, a lie usually uncovered when you used the actor’s name by accident. (“I love the part when Daniel Day-Lewis …”)
  • In 1993 Judy was in southern Sudan, helping a community that desperately needed food. An airdrop was planned, and the planes were supposed to come in from one direction. They came in from another. A two-hundred-pound sack of food that was dropped from the sky missed its target and landed on Judy’s leg, crushing it in ten places. Miraculously, a doctor doing relief work was right there: Judy was bleeding so much that at one point she had no pulse. First, Judy’s lower leg was amputated in Africa. Then, at the Mayo Clinic, most of the upper leg had to be amputated too. But Judy survived and continued to work with refugees. “Fortunately, the leg knocked off was my polio leg,” Judy would tell a Chicago Tribune reporter. “I’ve always been lucky.” All of them Mom considered brave
  • Mom would often talk about a refugee boy she’d met in a hospital in Afghanistan. He was the victim of a land mine and had lost a leg. She said to him that she brought greetings to him from schoolchildren in New York. “Tell them not to worry about me,” this little boy told her from his hospital bed. “I still have one leg.”
  • When you’re sick, just about the last place you want to be is in a hospital
  • But modern life itself is an interruption machine: phone calls, emails, texts, news, television, and our own restless minds. The greatest gift you can give anyone is your undivided attention—yet I’d been constantly dividing mine. No one was getting it, not even me.
  • Every time I put the book down to go grab some mocha, or check my email, or make a call, I returned to find Mom rereading it, sneakily wolfing down passages as though I’d left behind a bag of cookies, not a book, and she was scooping up crumbs behind my back
  • one based on getting people to stop using feelings as an excuse for their actions
  • Just by giving friendship and love, you keep the people around you from giving up—and each expression of friendship or love may be the one that makes all the difference.
  • Then she added, “I’m glad to know that the mouth sores won’t be bad. I didn’t like them at all.” She said this as though mouth sores were a matter of taste, something some people actually enjoyed.
  • You can’t know if you want to meet someone until you’ve met them, until you’ve started to talk and, most important, asked them questions. I’ve met the most wonderful people that way. And
  • “Of all the places I’ve been, the place I most want to go back to is Pakistan,” Mom said. “But I don’t think that’s in the cards. Nancy and my other friends there say it’s even more dangerous now than Afghanistan. But obviously I’m not worried about getting killed.” Mom smiled.
  • But I don’t entirely approve of people who get advanced degrees and then decide to stay at home. I think if society gives you the gift of one of those educations and you take a spot in a very competitive institution, then you should do something with that education to help others.
  • I think I got used to being tired all the time. If I’d waited until I was well rested to read, I never would have read anything
  • Too many people use the excuse that they don’t think they can do enough, so they decide they don’t have to do anything.
  • It’s incredibly grand, built at a time when banks were temples to money and no expense was spared in creating spaces that would awe visitors and give them confidence in the abilities of the owners to take their money and make vast sums for their customers.
  • We redecorated all sorts of literary apartments and fit our lives into and around them. Never movie apartments or TV apartments—those spaces were too literal, too fleshed out, with no room for the imagination
  • Whenever anyone doing humanitarian or refugee work or the hard task of journalism in troubled areas was killed or injured, Mom felt it pushed the balance toward chaos.
  • We’re all in the end-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.
  • The port, implanted in her chest for her chemo treatments, was now protruding from her skin, a foreign object that no longer served any purpose, like a gas pipe that jutted into an apartment now heated by steam and electricity.
  • I, on the other hand, continue to waste a significant portion of my life watching reality television, learning about the lives of dubious celebrities, and consuming cultural garbage with the feigned irony and faux populism that’s a hallmark of my generation and the ones that immediately follow
  • New York is a place that inspires hypocrisy. When I’m walking, I curse the cabs that race through yellow lights, but I tip generously when I’m late and my driver does just that
  • Then she whispered something to me, with a conspiratorial smile: “A friend left me a plant—to help me have an appetite. I made it into a tea just like she said. But I didn’t like it, so I’m not doing that again.” It took me a minute to figure out that Mom was talking about marijuana
  • There is no place more perfectly lonely than an airport at night when you fear someone you love is dying and you’re rushing to see that person.
  • One of the phrases she kept uttering was “It is what it is.” But everyone, including David and Nancy, had one more good conversation with her.
  • It was an extraordinary sight—a stranger tending to our mother with infinite care
  • I also noted a special pile of books. They were to be the next ones for our book club. They were in their own small stack, separate from the others.
  • If you aren’t ten minutes early, you’re late
  • Mary Anne saw the worst and believed the best.
  • Mom taught me that you can make a difference in the world and that books really do matter: they’re how we know what we need to do in life, and how we tell others
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