Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Friend My Deathbed Poems

Here's a little bit of a spoiler to the book The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe: These are the last words that the author's mother ever read:
If you do not wish for His kingdom, don't pray for it. But if you do, you must do more than pray for it; you must work for it.

The words are John Ruskin's, taken from a daily devotional lying on the bedside table where Schwalbe's mother died of cancer. Early in her illness one afternoon awaiting chemo, mother and son had formed a "book club" and kept it going for two years until death cut off their discussion with a volume of Alice Munro stories still to share.

As his mother lay in extremis, Schwalbe read to her a poem by Mary Oliver called Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End? It ends "Like goldfinches, little dolls of gold/fluttering around the corner of the sky/of God, the blue air." Schwalbe reports that he felt "a bit self-conscious" when he read the poem.

When my mother--a lover of reading--was dying under similar circumstances, someone--I remember it being my brother Kevin--read to her one of her favorites, the grandfather's poem from Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams, which begins "How calmly does the olive branch/observe the sky begin to blanch." It was a beautiful performance absent, I hope, of any self-consciousness at all. That came later, when after she breathed her last we sang Amazing Grace in a spontaneous spasm of fideism for which Mama must bear responsibility because she hadn't picked out a suitable agnostic alternative.

My mother and I didn't share books in the same way did the Schwalbes. Ours was a more librarianly type of sharing, where she shared what she knew about a book so I would read and enjoy it. Which I pretty much always did.

So, now I wonder, what did she last read? Or, meta-read? Christopher Hitchens, who became someone she would've admired, records meditating on crucifixes and their Inquisitorial significance as he lay dying in--ironically?--a Catholic hospital. Mama was at home, in what was and would be again the dining room, attended by tall bookshelves in two of the corners and perhaps comforted by their presence: priests of the mind.

Thinking about these rites of passage, I am struck at how much they have to do with reading. And then, ping-ponging back to the other pole, I wonder, after my birth, what was I first read? And also what did I myself first read to my children after they were born? And how soon? And every step of the way beyond and since: being read to/reading to, learning to read/teaching to read, being wed/wedding, being lost/losing, lifecycling/lifecycling.

Thinking thus, I wonder about Andrew Keen's notion of reading. He's written a book called Digitalvertigo: How Today's Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us.

I like boogeymen as much as anybody--but boogeymen are supposed to be present, in a very frightening way. Keen's boogeyman is invisible. At least for the first 43.33 pages of his book. That's when I put it down and went looking for a real nightmare.

Keene's alarm bell in the night is "the socials are coming." Everything and everybody (meaning tech companies) are jumping on the social networking bandwagon so they can ride the next tsunami to the moon.

Well, I'm reading Keene's laundry list of SocialVibe and PeekYou and BeKnown and thinking, "So what? You know what happens to tidal wave-propelled buggy moonshots: they don't work" when he reaches the ne plus ultra his argument:
Phew! And if this vertiginous wave of social networks isn't enough, then there is social reading - offering a giant collective hello to book lovers everywhere. Yes, reading, that most intensely private and illicit of all modern individual experience, is being transformed into a disturbingly social spectacle. Some of you may even be reading this book socially - meaning that instead of sitting alone with this book, you'll be sharing your hitherto intimate reading experience in real-time with thousands of your closest Facebook or Twitter friends via your e-readers. ... You see, social reading does, in a sense, represent the end of the world. It means the end of the isolated reader, the end of solitary thought, the end of purely individual literary reflection, the end of those long afternoons spent entirely along with just a book.
See those italics? Those are his! The end of the world! But why am I not scared? I'm the kind of person who would've pooh-poohed Noah as a warmist, and I know this about myself, so I should pay attention.

So what do I do? I give up on the book. I put the book down. I say finis to this book. And I'm using a blog and probably Goodreads to record this opinion of the book, so that ... so that what?

Mr. Keene, I don't brag about Twitter followers like you do. I don't have Twitter followers. My dog doesn't follow me. If he slips the leash, he's gone!

This blog, Mr. Keene, is my diary. Believe me: No one reads it!

And as for Facebook and Goodreads, well, they're sort of like sitting around the table in the high school cafeteria and talking about things and showing pictures, except you don't have to surrender your cookies to the Key Club bully. Or instead of having to call lots of people, you can call them all at the same time.

I will say, though, that some people are very quiet on their end of the line. I know what they're up to, though:
they're engaging in an intimate reading experience--with your damn tweets, no doubt, Mr. Keene! Ha! Caught you red-handed! Sharing! Italics yours!

To think that my and Will Schwalbe's mothers died believing that sharing was a good thing.

Get your deathbed poems ready. And then share them with somebody else. They'll be thankful. And will probably sing Amazing Grace anyway.


  1. Ha ha ha I just proved you wrong by reading your blog? Surprise!

  2. I read it too as I was reading The End of Your Life Book Club and making notes about how many of the books I have read and which ones I am adding to my to be read list.