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I am undoubtedly late to this party. I didn't mean to be. I'm pretty certain I purchased this book right when it first came out in 2012. I even started reading it right away, then put it down and left it under the end table in the living room for quite a while.

I am exceedingly glad that I picked it up again in the past few weeks. It is marvelous, with plenty to think about, both in terms of the books that Will Schwalbe and his mother, Mary Anne, shared during her chemotherapy treatments and hospice care, and with respect to life (and death) in general. I must confess that of the books that make up the chapter titles, I have read precious few, and that holds true for the lengthier list in the Appendix in the back. But it doesn't matter if I didn't read the books, because that's not the point of this book at all.

It is a beautiful, beautifully written book, a tribute to the author's unique and remarkable mother, but a tribute, too, to the lasting power of books. Here are two quotes about books that I especially liked. The first one is from the chapter about Daily Strength for Daily Needs, by Mary Wilder Tileston. It was a used copy of a book of daily devotionals, and became one of Mary Anne Schwalbe's constant companions.

The very physicality of this little book provided part of the comfort. I think Mom liked that her copy was at least secondhand, if not third or fourth. The text had been providing wisdom and solace to people for well over a hundred years, and this one particular book had been doing the same for seventy-three of them. It was printed the same year Mom was born. Other people had turned the pages, had put their own bookmarks in and taken them out. Was it crazy to think that all of them had somehow left on the pages traces of their own hopes and fears?

...

The owners of the book were born and died; what remained was the physical book itself. It needed to be handled with increasing delicacy and care as the binding grew loose with age, but you knew that it was the exact same book that others had read before you, and the you had read in the years before. Would the words have inspired Mom the same way if they had been flashing on a screen? She didn't think so.

This next one is a hybrid, from the chapter about Geraldine Brooks's People of the Book. It says something I love about kindness first, then talks about books and religion, and the importance of books in general.

"I don't know what other people think--but I know what I think," my mother replied. "I think everyone needs to be kind--especially doctors. You can be a very great doctor and still be kind. That's partly why I like Dr. O'Reilly so much more than the first oncologist I saw--not because she's a woman but because she's kind."

"But you always taught us that sometimes people aren't nice because they aren't happy."

"Yes, but maybe those people shouldn't be looking after other people. And I'm also talking about kindness, not just about being nice. You can be gruff or abrupt and still be kind. Kindness has much more to do with what you do than how you do it. And that's why I didn't have much sympathy for Hanna's mother in People of the Book. She was a doctor and a mother and she wasn't kind."

"But did that make you like the book less?" I asked.

"Of course not! That's one of the things that made it interesting. But the thing that made it most interesting is what it had to say about books and religion. I love how Brooks shows that every great religion shares a love of books, of reading, of knowledge. The individual books may be different, but reverence for books is what we all have in common. Books are what bring all the different people in the novel together, Muslims and Jews and Christians. That's why everyone in the book goes to such lengths to save this one book--one book stands for all books. When I think back on all the refugee camps I visited, all over the world, the people always asked for the same thing: books. Sometimes even before medicine or shelter--they wanted books for their children."

Finally, this bit of advice from Schwalbe's mother, from the chapter entitled Suite Française, in response to the author's feelings of guilt for not doing more in the world. The conversation is largely in reference to the plight of international refugees, on whose behalf Mary Anne Schwalbe had worked tirelessly for decades.

"... Of course you could do more--you can always do more, and you should do more--but still, the important thing is to do what you can, whenever you can. You just do your best, and that's all you can do. Too many people use the excuse that they don't think they can do enough, so they decide they don't have to do anything. There's never a good excuse for not doing anything--even if it's just to sign something, or send a small contribution, or invite a newly settled refugee family over for Thanksgiving."

A wonderful, thoughtful book about books and relationships, life and death. Not one I plan on giving away, but one I plan on rereading down the line.



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Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
slatts
Mar. 10th, 2014 09:43 pm (UTC)
The KINDNESS bit
THAT bit rang true—to me, at least.

Most all the people I see are incredibly professional. And there are very few that aren't kind to a certain extent.

But there is one nurse who amazes me. Right here and now for her kindness and her professionalism. But more so that she's able to do this so genuinely and so real. And then I think, I will be gone someday and she must know and feel that. And yet she will be able to be kind to the "next me."

That amazes me. I couldn't do her job but I'm so glad she can.
kellyrfineman
Mar. 12th, 2014 12:37 am (UTC)
Re: The KINDNESS bit
There is real appreciation throughout the book for the kindness of the medical staff and hospice personnel who care for the author's mother in addition to providing care for her. Glad you have a great nurse working with you!
(Deleted comment)
kellyrfineman
Mar. 12th, 2014 12:38 am (UTC)
It's a wonderful book on so many levels.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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