What are you reading? I just completed "The End of Your Life Book Club" by Will Schwalbe. It begins with that question.
The book profiles an exchange between a 74-year-old woman diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and her son (the book's author), who is somewhat awkwardly, at least at first, shepherding his mother through her treatment regimen. The pair launches and continues, for more than two years, a two-member book club that holds regular and random conversations which are "both wide-ranging and deeply personal."
Some might say it's a book about books. But it's much more than that. These two people "are not a sick person and a well person, but a mother and son taking a journey together."
Actually, I think it's a love letter.
It's one of many books that educate and enlighten about death and dying in uniquely personal and heart wrenching/heart-warming ways.
"Crossing to Safety" by Wallace Stegner is about a unique and long-held friendship between two couples; there's even a study guide for that one.
"The Etiquette of Illness" by Susan Halpern is another book that generates fascinating conversational give-and-take on tough issues. The reviewers call the book "wise and encouraging." I've also heard it referred to as "life-enhancing" by family members who discussed it together.
I delight in being queried about what I might be reading. I've found the question always opens up rich conversation, eventually promoting new insights about self and others. Even people who are not avid readers are willing to reminisce about a favorite book from their reading past.
I once had an amazing exchange about risky behavior with a 5-year-old who was familiar with "The Tales of Peter Rabbit." And I recall a sobering conversation about faith with someone who professed to have none, but kept his mother's worn copy of "Daily Strength for Daily Needs" by Mary Wilder Tileston on his bedside table and read excerpts from it every night.
Have you ever noticed that people not easily open to talking about themselves often will talk readily about the characters in a book they've read? People who hesitate to discuss issues that worry or frighten them get a certain release from immersing themselves in a book where the characters are similarly struggling.
There's a thought-provoking phrase in the Will Schwalbe book that has stayed with me — I may need to join a book club in order to totally explore the thinking behind it. The dying mother says, "When you cannot decide between two things, choose the option that allows you to change course if necessary. Not the road less traveled, but the road with the exit ramp."
I'm not sure why that concept resonates with me so much. But it does. As happens with a good book, I do not need to act on anything related to those words, I can just ponder them — let the thoughts they produce meander into my psyche for future reference. And as I do, I pick up yet another book, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" by Katherine Boo. Have you read it? I'm told it's riveting — it's about hope.
Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at 541-261-2037 or Sharon@hmj.com