The Permeable Membrane between Books and Life

Will Schwalbe’s earliest memories involve his mother reading to him and his siblings. Books figured large in the Schwalbe household. The children were read to every night by their parents until they became voracious readers in their own right. The love of literature was so instilled in him that Will became a professional writer, editor, and book publisher. 

The world between the pages was not an escape from the world beyond the front door, especially for Will’s mom Mary Anne. She spent much of her life dedicated to the plight of refugees in distress. Mary Anne made countless trips to countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Liberia, Sudan, and Gaza assisting in building schools and creating women’s shelters. She was a founding member and longtime chairperson of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children. Her last big project was to raise funds to build a library in Kabul.

Books and life came together in an intensely personal and familial way when Mary Anne was diagnosed in 2007 with advanced pancreatic cancer. Over the eighteen-months between her diagnosis and her death, Will accompanied his mother to many treatment sessions. They decided to help pass the time by reading and discussing books. Thus was born the end-of-your-life book club.

For Mary Anne and Will, there was a permeable membrane between books and life. Books informed their lives and life impacted their appreciation of what they read.

Will makes the observation:

“…one of the things I learned from Mom is this: Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying. 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.”

Such is not only the case for many of the luminous books that they read and discussed together over those months such as Marilyn Robinson’s “Gilead”, Alan Bennett’s “The Uncommon Reader”, Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”, and Alice Munro’s “Too Much Happiness”, to name only a few. But this same energy of life is transmitted in spades through Will Schwalbe’s chronicling of those months in “The End of Your Life Book Club.”

Will and I have gotten to know each other a bit through email correspondence. We’ve discovered that we have a lot in common. Will lost a loved one to pancreatic cancer, as did I when my long-term partner Bill died sixteen days after his diagnosis. Both Will and I have written memoirs about the experience, mine entitled “August Farewell – the last sixteen days of a thirty-three-year romance.” Will watched the video book trailer ( and immediately wanted to read “August Farewell.” I happily sent him a signed copy. Both Will and I are gay men. And, coincidentally, Will’s partner’s name is David—a mirror image. They are Will and David. We were David and Bill.

Two of my Bill’s treasured books that I displayed at his memorial service were his leather-bound three-volume set of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” and his dogged-eared copy of “The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear”, pages smudged with lemonade-stained finger prints of neighbourhood children to whom Bill read the limericks and showed the drawings during lazy summer afternoons on our veranda.

I think Mary Anne and Bill would have liked each other a lot.

* * *

For information on Will Schwalbe’s “The End of Your Life Book Club”, see

For information on my memoir “August Farewell” and my novel “Searching for Gilead”, see my website at


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s