Review | Monday 01 October 2012
This is a unique and inspiring story of a beautiful relationship between a mother and her son, as well as the power of reading. It also holds many gentle truths about the importance of being a good person and leading a meaningful life.
Will Schwalbe was an editor at a publishing house in the US when his mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As the family rallied together and took turns accompanying her to doctors and chemotherapy treatments, Will and his mother, already both prolific readers, decided to begin reading the same books so that they could discuss them together. They traversed across numerous works of literature – high and low, new and ancient, plays, poetry and prose – and talked about them during their interminable waits in hospitals.
Coupled with this fascinating meditation is a loving biography of Will’s mother, Mary Anne Schwalbe, a remarkable woman by anyone’s account. She was a director of admissions at Harvard Univeristy and Radcliffe College, founded the Women’s Refugee Commission, had been on the board of the International Rescue Committee, fearlessly travelled to numerous war zones including Afghanistan, Liberia, Sudan, East Timor and Gaza, and helped dozens of asylum seekers immigrate to America and get an education. Throughout her cancer, she was desperately trying to raise funds to set up a public and mobile library in Afghanistan.
Mary Anne is not only a beacon of forbearance throughout her illness, but also reminds Will, and the reader, of the importance of doing good in whatever small capacity you can.
I have met Will Schwalbe a number of times at Frankfurt Book Fair in my previous incarnation in publishing, so I was fascinated to read this profoundly personal memoir. He always struck me as a remarkably upbeat and positive person, almost bouncing out of his seat with helpfulness, and it is clear from the book that he has learnt these traits from his mother. The relationship between the two of them is beautiful. As a bibliophile, it was fascinating to read their discussions and perspectives on works I have already read and want to read, with a number of their selections now added to my list of must-reads.
This is a profoundly beautiful and moving book that, without sentimentality or false emotion, reminds us of the importance of family and making a difference in our lives, but also how books can always, always teach us so much and allow us to empathise with other people.
Angela Crocombe is the Children’s Book Buyer at Readings St Kilda, mother to a three year-old, and the author of two books on sustainable living, A Lighter Footprint: A Practical Guide to Minimising your Impact on the Planet and Ethical Eating.