I have to confess, I highlighted huge chunks of this book and for reasons that are too numerous to list here. Simply put, I loved this book. I loved everything about it: it’s honesty, the characters, the emotion that runs through every word, the empathy and the wisdom. All of it appealed to the very essence of my humanity. Most of all, I loved that this book explored the relationship between mother and son through books and reading:
Still, 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 favourite 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.
I can’t begin to imagine a woman like Mary Ann Schwalbe. The way her son describes her, she was larger than life, a powerhouse in a small package, a legacy on legs. She clearly lived her life with intense clarity and commitment and passed that on to all who knew her.
But mostly, this book muses about books and about death. As Schwalbe uses books to explore his reaction to death in general and his mother’s dying in particular:
“There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
Schwalbe has other interesting insights:
I often seek electronic books, but they never come after me. They may make me feel, but I can’t feel them. They are all soul with no flesh, no texture, and no weight. They can get in your head but can’t whack you upside it.
I found myself thinking deeply about these statements. Did I agree? I’m not convinced. I like an electronic book. I like the feeling of a small device which holds a library. It gives me a sense of climbing Everest without moving. What I do, profoundly agree with is the notion that: “That’s one of the things books do. They help us talk. But they also give us something we all can talk about when we don’t want to talk about ourselves.” For Schwalbe’s mother, reading was often “like praying” and I want to ask Schwalbe more about this notion … sometimes reading is selfish, a form of escapism … how is that like praying? What kind of prayer does he mean or did his mother mean? So many questions left unanswered.
But on of the things that I loved most about this book was the book-list that it has given me.
The Lizard Cage, The Uncommon Reader, The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch (I’ve seen Pausch speak and I can’t recommend the videos enough), Continental Drift, The Painted Veil, Joan Didion’s autobiography, Olive Kitteridge, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, The Bolter, The Magic Mountain,
And even more, I enjoyed the journey back through books which I had read and loved: People of the Book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Suite FRancaise, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Brooklyn and Too Much Happiness.
In short, a wonderful read. So sad to have finished it.