Mary Anne Schwalbe was an educator who worked at Harvard University and the Dalton School in New York City and spent 10 years building libraries in Afghanistan. She loved books, a passion shared by her son, Will, a former editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books and founder of Cookstr.com. When his mother was diagnosed with cancer, Schwalbe began accompanying her to chemotherapy treatments. During one of those trips, a casual conversation about what she was reading evolved into a book club with two enthusiastic members.
“Some books were given to us, some recommended by friends or staff at favorite bookstores,” Schwalbe recalls. “And there was the ‘if you knock a book off the shelf, you buy it’ rule, which meant we read The Collected Stories of Somerset Maugham.” The Schwalbes’ choices for the book club ranges from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to Murder in the Cathedral and Suite Française. “People of the Book and Continental Drift had themes that entranced us. And Daily Strength for Daily Needs gave my mother great calm and solace. My mother felt strongly that books tell you what you need to do in the world, and if you’re moved by a book, you have a responsibility to act. She loved Khalid Hosseini because he introduced readers to the people of Afghanistan.”
Schwalbe told his mother before she died “that I wanted to write a book about us and the books we’d read. Her initial response was, ‘Oh, no,’ but she soon began e-mailing me notes for the book.” The End of Your Life Book Club, a testament to the power of love between mother and son and the power of reading in our lives, is published by Knopf.
Mary Anne Schwalbe died at home, surrounded by the books she loved. “When I think back to her last days,” Schwalbe says, “I remember she could look over and see her favorite books all lined up in a bookshelf on the wall beside the bed. These books she loved brought back wonderful memories for her, and just seeing them gave her great comfort.”
A heartfelt quote from the book says it all: “I will never be able to read my mother’s favorite books without thinking of her—and when I pass them on and recommend them, I’ll know that some of what made her goes with them; that some of my mother will live on in those readers, readers who may be inspired to love the way she loved and do their own version of what she did in the world.”