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Have you ever read a book that you absolutely loved, and then learned more about – or better yet, met – the author and immediately wished you hadn’t? I have. We’ve been told it is unwise to meet our heroes, and sometimes that’s true. Other times, our heroes are exactly who we thought they would be. I’ve met authors I thought would be the most gracious people, only to find that they are supremely self-involved. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve met authors whose wit and intelligence on the page made their physical presence terrifying to even think of, only to meet them and come face to face with exceptionally kind human beings. I couldn’t even find words to speak to Lauren Groff, whose writing is sharp as a knife, but she was the sweetest and friendliest person in the room.

Then there are the authors who are the physical embodiment of their presence on the page. Will Schwalbe is one of them; all kindness and warmth. I met Will years ago when his first book came out. Much like he speaks of in his new book, sometimes the right books come into your life at the right times. The End of Your Life Book Club tells the true story of the end of Will’s mother’s life as she fought her own battle with cancer. To fill the days spent enduring chemo and other checkups, Will and his mother would read, and use the books they read to discuss difficult subjects they didn’t know how to discuss otherwise. They found new ways to understand and relate to each other. They developed strength they didn’t know they had, and a common ground of understanding between them both.

The End of Your Life Book Club came out only a few years after my father had undergone a bone marrow transplant. The years leading up to the operation, the months he spent in recovery, and the years he has suffered through the after effects since, are something hard to explain. Cancer took so much from my dad, and yet he remains strong, grateful, caring and with an amazing sense of humour still in tact. But the doctors needed to kill his immune system so it wouldn’t fight against the foreign marrow, so he went from being a physically fit firefighter to being basically skin and bones. The feelings from those days, weeks and months spent in the hospital, then at a hotel close by, then at home, watching my dad continue to fight are something I’ve never quite found the words for. Until Will Schwalbe gave them to me.

Though the outcome for Will and I is different, the feelings are so very much the same. He gave words to the admiration I felt for my dad, and for the more mature understanding I gained about who he is as a person, not just as my father. I cried my eyes out when I finished the book, firstly because it touched my heart in both happy and sad ways, but also because it said to me that spectacular thing books often do: you are not alone.

I took to Twitter to tell Will just how much I loved the book, and weeks later, when we met, he knew who I was. He signed my book “To My Twitter Buddy Chelsey” and that book sits on my most prized shelf to this day.

When I learned that he had a new book releasing last December, I was ecstatic. I bought it over the Christmas holidays and read. The book is called Books for Living and is comprised of essays on books that have changed Will’s life in one way or another. He speaks of how James Baldwin gave him hope for his future as a gay man with Giovanni’s Room, and how A Little Life taught him the value of hugs, and how Stuart Little taught him that life isn’t about the destination, it is about the journey and the search. As I read, I thought about the books that had changed my life, and also about how badly I now wanted to read all of the books Will spoke about.  I went out immediately and bought Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea, and Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird and of course, Giovanni’s Room.

And somehow, miraculously it seemed, Books for Living found me, yet again, at the perfect time in my life. While I was reading the book, my best friend’s father passed away. My heart broke for her, and I fought the urge to just show up and hug her for hours. Though we’ve been friends for years, we are very different people and deal with our hardships differently and at that time, she needed to be with her family. So as I read, I came across a chapter on a cookbook. In that chapter, Will quotes Nigella Lawson speaking of how one of the kindest things you can do for a loved one who is suffering is to leave prepared food for them, without telling them you are. I got home that night and cooked. Later, my husband and I took our set of their spare keys, let ourselves into her and her partner’s apartment and left the food in their fridge. I sent a quick note to let her know it was there and that was all. We receive thank you texts later that night and it made me feel like somehow, we were able to show them our love in a quiet and softer way. Once again, I had found a kind of solace in Will’s words.

When the Toronto Public Library announced they would be hosting Will for an event, my colleague and I got our tickets immediately. After the talk, we stood in line to speak to him and have our books signed. When we reached the front, I felt like I was seeing a friend I hadn’t seen in years, even though, understandably, he didn’t remember me from years ago. I told him my story about cooking, and my colleague told a story about how Giovanni’s Room also changed his life as a gay man growing up in the 60s and 70s. I watched as others poured their hearts out to Will just like we did; bonded to him by the shared love of how books alter and shape our lives. I went home feeling elated, comforted and with a sense of belonging.

In a word where we are both hyper-connected and yet sometimes so emotionally disconnected, books have centered me, and I’m so glad to have authors like Will to turn to – time and time again.

(If you want to see Will’s exuberance and kindness for yourself, have a look at this clip he filmed while visiting Toronto on The Social.)

(P.S. My original review of The End of Your Life Book Club still exists from years ago!)

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7 thoughts on “Books for Living, or Why Will Schwalbe Is My Favourite

  1. Chelsey! This post! Completely made me cry. Such a beautiful, heartfelt post about so much.

    I’ve been struggling with writing a post about this perfect book but I give up now. You’ve said it already.

    Beautiful, beautiful.

    So glad that your dad is doing so well now. And that you found a way to show your friend that she was loved.

    And…I’m crying again.

    • I do know some people who weren’t as big fans as I was, but I guess it depends on the time that you read it. They were both the perfect thing for me at the time :).

  2. This was a really illuminating and humbling post for me, Chelsey. I read The End of Your Life Book Club a few years ago–after I’d read three other cancer-related books that same year–and I was burnt out. I was upset the book didn’t deal more with the “book club” part of the narrative and focused more on the cancer narrative. I gave it 3 out of 5. Was a bit let down.

    But in retrospect, that was such a small-minded review. Obviously I wasn’t in the right headspace for the book (I’m a firm believer that you have to read books at the right time). So I’m soooooo glad to hear that it affected you the way the book was supposed to. This made my day :)

    This was a good lesson. And a lovely story. Happy to hear your father pulled through, and that you two still get to enjoy your time together. My wife just had a tumor removed from her back, so I know a little more of what you’ve gone through now, at least.

    Thanks for the post, and for sharing that little part of yourself.

    • I totally agree with you that books mean the most when they get you at the perfect time and you are not the first person I know who didn’t love The End of Your Life Book Club and that is totally fine! I’m so sorry to hear about your wife’s tumor and I hope she’s doing well now. I know how scary that must have been.
      Your post about the books that changed your life actually inspired this one, so thank you for that :).

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