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There’s a fairly common hypothetical question you may have heard: “What would you like your last meal to be?” It’s morbid, but it’s also a way of thinking about what food means to us beyond sustenance, how it can also be a source of memory, comfort, and pleasure. But anyone who loves reading knows that books can provide those same things and more — food for thought, a glimpse into the lives of others, a practice in empathy, a way to travel the world. So perhaps if you’re like me, someone whose life has been greatly impacted by the books you’ve read, you’ve had this dark but intriguing thought: What would you like your last read book to be?
Of course, this question comes with a lot of unknowns. When are you dying? Under what circumstances? How long do you have to read the book? Will you have time to finish the book? Answering this question may also force you to grapple with another philosophical uncertainty: Would you want to know when and how you’ll die? And would that change your book choice?
I’ve been a voracious reader for as long as I can remember. I read over 100 books a year, and regardless of how many books I finish, my TBR still seems to grow at alarming speed. Nothing makes me confront my own mortality like thinking of all the books I’ll never have a chance to read. And thinking about the last book I read before I die already fills me with anxiety. I feel like it has to be something deeply meaningful, something that can unlock a final level of emotional maturity and worldly wisdom. Should it be a classic, something that’s shaped readers for centuries? Perhaps a thoughtful book on death and the meaning of life. Fantasy might help you expand your imagination, a gift before leaving this earth for the next. Would nonfiction be your last chance to learn something real and true? Or maybe a reread of a favorite book. Rereading would at least ensure you know you won’t hate the ending of your last book.
As an occasionally morbid person with an outsized amount of curiosity, these questions have floated through my head more than once. But they struck me in a much different way earlier this year, as I sat with my book-loving grandmother during the final week of her life.
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My grandmother, who I called Guy, has always been an avid reader. She lived her entire life in a small, rural Arkansas town, but she lived vicariously through the books she found at the county library. She also instilled her love of reading in my father and in me. As a child, I remember sorting through antique Little Golden Books with Guy, debating whether to dive into The Poky Little Puppy or The Monster at the End of This Book. When I became obsessed with a certain fantasy series about a boy wizard, she became just as enamored with the story. I would wait in line at midnight at the Little Rock Barnes & Noble for the next book in the series to be released. Then, I would read it as quickly as possible so I could hand it off to my grandmother to read next.
Photo from the author
I didn’t realize just how much my grandmother read until later, as she reached her late 70s and her eyesight deteriorated. The small county library had a limited stock of large print books, and Guy quickly finished all the books available to her. She asked for my help navigating the internet to order large print mysteries and romantic suspense novels, her favorite genres. After helping her order a stack of books, she’d read them in a matter of days and be back on the hunt for new books again. Although I’d moved across the country to Washington, D.C., searching for books was a way for us to connect. For the next Christmas, I bought her a Kindle and showed her how to set the font to a larger size. This opened up a new world of books to her, no longer limited by finding large print physical copies. Her voracious reading only increased from there, especially once I showed her Kindle Unlimited and how to check out ebooks from her library system. In her final years, my grandmother finished a new book almost every day.
Reading in Her Last Days
During the pandemic, I was separated from my grandmother and parents by 1,000 miles and a world of fear, like many others. In spring 2020, at the peak of COVID-19 uncertainty, my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Knowing that she and my mother were both immunosuppressed, I had to watch from afar as my family navigated the overwhelmed health care system, worried that me traveling to help would bring more health risks into their lives. Reading continued to be a major part of Guy’s life as she went through chemo and surgery, providing her a way to escape her terrifying reality. Over a year later, she was deemed cancer free.
It wasn’t until September 2021 that her health took a major turn for the worse. She was 85, struggling with a variety of problems, some related to the cancer treatments and some not, when my parents called to tell me that she’d been admitted to the hospital and, due to a do-not-resuscitate order, was unlikely to return home. Luckily, the world looked different in September 2021 than in March 2020. We were all vaccinated, and although the Delta variant of Covid was ravaging the mostly unvaccinated state of Arkansas, we knew more about how the disease spread and what precautions could be taken to protect ourselves against it. Although I still feared carrying a deadly virus to my high-risk family, we agreed it was worth the risk to provide support and spend time with my grandmother during her final days. This is a gift I do not take lightly. I know many people lost loved ones during the pandemic without being able to tell them goodbye, and I’m forever grateful for the time I got to spend with Guy and that I had the chance to mourn with my parents.
And the timing was incredibly fortunate. When I arrived, my grandmother was mentally clear and alert. We had several good days together as we moved her from the hospital to hospice care, and I was able to talk with Guy about everything under the sun. She reminisced about her parents and siblings, laughed about my dad’s most embarrassing childhood stories, shared memories of seeing my plays and attending Grandparents Day lunches at my elementary school.
I also got to share something really meaningful to me. I’d called Guy a year earlier to tell her that I’d officially gotten a book deal; my debut novel, a queer romcom, was to be published in June 2022. I’d hoped she’d be able to see her granddaughter’s book on the shelves someday. Although that wasn’t to be, I’d hurriedly texted my editor as I rushed to the airport, asking if she could share the acknowledgements I’d written formally laid out on the page. She came through with that and with the first drafts of potential book covers within a day. I waited for a moment when my grandmother was awake and in good spirits, and I showed her how my last name — the same as hers — was to be printed on the cover. I read her the line in the acknowledgements where I thanked her for sharing her love of books with me. She couldn’t be alive to see my first book published, but this moment, seeing the smile on her face, will always stay with me.
What I Read
As the days went on, Guy grew quieter, ate less, slept more. That meant I spent more time reading at her side. I juggled a strange assortment of books. Some were humorous to lift my spirits, some were fantasy to help me escape the dreary sounds and smells of the hospice center. Other books dealt directly with loss and grief, and although they certainly made me cry, they also made me feel less alone. Seeing Ghosts by Kat Chow, a memoir about Chow losing her mother too soon to an aggressive form of cancer, helped me think about how to connect with other family during such a difficult time and made me grateful for the long life my grandmother had. Afterlife by Julia Alvarez, a novel about a woman experiencing immense loss and changes in her life, prepared me for the long process of grief. While doing some chores at my grandmother’s empty house, I listened to the audiobook of Afterlife and one passage unlocked a new wave of emotion in me. After hearing of terrible tragedies in the world, the protagonist contemplates the loved ones she’s lost:
“At least, Antonia tries to console herself, neither Izzy nor Sam are having to live through these broken times. But they are also missing the swallows, a large twittering flock darkening the evening sky as they flew off the roof of Roger’s barn yesterday; missing the early-morning view outside her bedroom window, the mist dispelling, the far hills emerging, taking shape, having survived the night; missing the intricate spiderwebs on the barbed-wire fence, their dewed filaments jeweled with light; missing the brisk charge in the air as the wind sharpens, the maples turning red and gold, the kids walking to school with their brand new paraphernalia, little battalions of bright colors, their shouts and laughter recalling a childhood world gone by.”
My grandmother wasn’t yet gone, but there was already so much she was missing, so much I knew she wouldn’t be there to see. Books gave me a way to prepare for my own loss, like the tiny moments when a hummingbird, Guy’s favorite, would flitter by and I would always, always think of her.
What She Read
After Guy passed, after the small outdoor funeral ended, after the casserole dishes from thoughtful neighbors were empty, I packed away the books I’d read in preparation for my return flight home. Thinking of how they’d shaped my memories of my last week with my grandmother, I couldn’t help but wonder what books had touched her final weeks. I went to her house and found her Kindle waiting by her favorite chair. I scrolled through dozens of books: psychological thrillers, historical romances, cozy mysteries, paranormal rom-coms. It was genre fiction as far as the eye could see, all the kinds of books that literary elitists would mock. How could these page-turning, entertaining books teach her about the meaning of life? About how to process the end that was coming? About what might lie beyond?
I wondered if these were the books she would have chosen if she’d known the end was coming so soon. Shouldn’t she have chosen something more steeped in philosophical concepts? Something that grapples with our purpose on earth? It’s what I thought I might have picked. Perhaps a heavy, critically-acclaimed, profound book would have given her some final wisdom.
But if I’ve learned anything in the four years I’ve written for Book Riot and engaged deeply with the reading community, it’s that genre fiction has just as much power to transport you — and transform you — as a reader. Reading high-brow literary fiction and academic nonfiction doesn’t necessarily make someone more enlightened or worthy of respect. What matters is reading what you love, and I’m comforted to know that my grandmother spent her final weeks reading books that brought her joy rather than suffering through something she felt pressured to make her last book.
When my time comes, perhaps I’ll have enough warning to make that final book choice. Either way, I’ll take a lesson from what I learned from my grandmother’s Kindle: Always, always read what you love, regardless of other people’s opinions. The end of your life is no time to do something for strangers’ approval. Reading is a private relationship between you and the books that move you. So read what moves you, as often as you can, for as long as you can.
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