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The art of writing about reading

The End of Your Life Book Club - by Will Schwalbe.

Whenever I use the term “literati”, I’m being facetious and describing a Melbourne writer’s culture that I find peculiar at best and laughably pretentious at worst.

When I came across The End of Your Life Book Club - written by Will Schwalbe, a writer, an editor and mercifully, not from Melbourne - I was petrified.

I didn’t want to be part of yet another literati conversation about the death of the book. I didn’t want to hear about mergers and acquisitions or how the publishing industry is akin to gun manufacturing. Another print vs digital rehash was far beyond my patience.

So it was with trepidation that I downloaded the Schwalbe tome. Trepidation that it would be all-industry, all bitchy and nasty and awash with literary in-jokes and obscure references to books I’ve never heard of. Trepidation that it would be a literary Emperor’s New Clothes wank-fest.

Trepidation, of course, that was completely ill-placed. Rather than focusing on the author’s bio - such the rookie mistake - I should have concentrated on the title. Instead of fearing industry prattle, my worries should have centred on the spectacle I’d become listening to a 9.5 hour audiobook without someone holding my hand.

The lump lodged in my throat on the first page; by the end I had sobbed far more than I had reading David Nicholls’ One Day (2009) or Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (2002); the two books that once topped my Most Devastating list.

So the premise is a simple one: an informal book club emerges between the narrator, Will, and his mother, Mary, who is dying of pancreatic cancer. A club, Schwalbe acknowledges, that he - like all enthusiastic readers - has always been apart of.

I was completely sucked in by this idea. As someone who failed her one and only organised book club foray, I really like Schwalbe’s point they all keen readers are always in casual book clubs. Those what-we’ve-been-reading conversations have long been my favourites; my relationships with folks who don’t read often feel thinner for it.

More than just a book about books however, The End of Your Life Book Club is about reading. It’s about other things, sure - death and dying and feminism and refugees and public health and education and homosexuality and travel and middle-class guilt - but it’s mostly about the gifts accrued through that simple act of turning pages.

Books provided Will and his mother a way to talk about things that would have been too confronting, too frightening, too close-to-the-bone to discuss frankly. Instead - and in a way that was both sweet and familiar - mother and son spoke about life’s big ticket concerns through characters; through, ostensibly, avatars.

Books provided Will and his mother an escape; not necessarily from the awfulness of Mary’s chemo, of her impending death, but just the offering of elsewhere. I’ve written previously about the simple but intoxicating idea of just wanting different - not necessarily better but just something else. Books provide this. You can read to feel better, or worse, or just more simply otherwise.

The End of Your Life Book Club forced me to think about my own patterns of literature consumption. I realised I read much more when I’m less-than-happy. When I’m happy - really happy, as opposed to just content - I just want to listen to music and loll; if I’m truly happy, my concentration is far too impaired for books.

Divinyls - Science Fiction (1982) and those times you want to throw all your books away.

When I’m less than happy however, I read voraciously. I have to. And I have to have the next book lined up; the idea of there being a gap - a consuming chasm - is petrifying. And sure, sometimes it’s about about escape - about preferring other people’s misery to my own - and at other times it’s just about wanting to give introspection and self-reflection a rest. To immerse in something outside of myself.

Schwalbe discusses a diverse range of books I enjoyed immensely - from Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (2008), Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005) and Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2006) - and far more that I hadn’t. And yet, rather than make me feel excluded from the unfamiliar volumes - rather than making me feel as though I’m pressed up against the window of some fantastic door-list-only literary in club - instead, he had me salivating to read them.

The End of Your Life Book Club is a beautiful combination of memoir, tribute to a parent, but even more so, it’s a lovely homage to that transformative exercise of reading.

I’m not sure a reader could ask for more of a treat than that.

Will Schwalbe on The End of Your Life Book Club

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