Author learns life’s lessons from books he shared with his mom

Will Schwalbe

When Mary Anne Schwalbe returned from Afghanistan in 2007 feeling unwell, doctors suspected it was a rare type of hepatitis — for a woman who worked with refugees in places such as Rwanda and Darfur, it seemed a reasonable diagnosis.

But when she was diagnosed with a fatal form of pancreatic cancer, Will Schwalbe and his mother faced the certainty of her death. Waiting for chemotherapy one day, Will decided to ask his mom what he always asked her: What have you been reading?

So begins The End Of Your Life Book Club (Knopf, 10/2). Over the next two years, Mary Anne and Will began a book club that brought them together as her life came to an end. Through discussions about books by authors from Stieg Larsson and P.G. Wodehouse to T.S. Eliot and Khaled Hosseini, Will realized that their book club “wasn’t about death. It was about life — the life lessons I learned from Mom, and the life lessons we learned from the books we read.”

As their list jumps from classic to popular and poetry to mysteries, the issues they discuss include questions of faith and courage as well as how Mary Anne would like the family thank yous after her death to look (and what color ink to use on them). The End Of Your Life Book Club ultimately leads Mary Anne to her last act — securing funding for a library for women in Afghanistan, which is today nearing completion in Kabul.

As Will writes, reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying. The End Of Your Life Book Club “illustrates the power of the written word to expand our knowledge of ourselves and others” writes Publishers Weekly in a starred review.

Schwalbe has worked in publishing (most recently as senior vice president and editor in chief of Hyperion Books); digital media, as the founder and CEO of, and as a journalist, writing for various publications including The New York Times and the South China Morning Post. He is on the boards of Yale University Press and the Kingsborough Community College Foundation. He is the coauthor, with David Shipley, of Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better.

Will Schwalbe will be speaking and signing books on Friday, Oct. 12, 8 p.m., at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave. in Coral Gables.

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