Will Schwalbe’s recently published book, The End of Your Life Book Club, describes the author’s two-year book club with his mother, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Both avid readers, the mother and son decide to read the same books and use them as a vehicle for communicating with each other through the stress of chemo treatments, through the pain and loneliness of dying, and through the helplessness of watching a beloved parent fading away.

“She never wavered in her conviction that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal . . . Mom taught me that you can make a difference in the world and that books really do matter: They’re how we know what we need to do in life, and how we tell others. Mom also showed me, over the course of two years and dozens of books and hundreds of hours in hospitals, that books can be how we get closer to each other and stay close, even in the case of a mother and son who were very close to each other to begin with and even after one of them has died.” (Will Schwalbe, End of Your Life Book Club, p. 326)

Long into the night, starting from the day I learned to read, I would devour books until my eyes closedI remember when I received my first library card. I was six years old and had just recently learned how to read. I loved books even before I could read them. I loved how they looked, how they felt in my arms, like piles full of wisdom just for me. When the librarian told me that I could take out as many books as I wanted, I was thrilled. Every couple of weeks my mother would bring me to the library, and I would lose myself in its quiet, cozy aisles. I would leave with as many books as I could carry, and I would set them up on my dresser. Long into the night, starting from the day I learned to read, I would devour books until my eyes closed. My favorite place is still a library or a bookstore, and the friends to whom I have remained close throughout the years are the ones that I can reconnect to in an instant by asking: “What are you reading?”

That is also the question that I happened to ask a stranger sitting next to me at a Jewish women’s writing conference in Jerusalem five years ago. We were listening to the speeches and scribbling in our notebooks, when I spotted a familiar-looking book peeking out of her bag. It turned out we were in the middle of reading the same sefer, and I suddenly had an idea.

“Let’s learn it together,” I suggested after a ten-minute conversation about all of the deep, intriguing ideas that were in the book. Both of us were mothers of big families, and we didn’t live near each other. So we decided that we would read a certain number of pages a night, and then e‑mail each other our thoughts. When we finished that book, we went on to another one. We learned through hard pregnancies and moves, and challenging parenting days. We prepared for holidays together, and encouraged each other through life’s many hurdles. Sometimes at night and sometimes at dawn, depending on where each of us was in the world, we pored over words of wisdom and held them up for each other like jewels in our palms. The struggles we encountered with so many different ideas became a channel for us to understand ourselves and the world around us. It became (and still remains to this day) a means for us to both rise above and contend with the ups and downs of an ordinary day.

I found myself using reading to engage with my life, instead of trying to escape its difficultiesBecause of our own two-person book club that has no name and no place and no set time, I have begun to see reading in a different light than I have since I first peered over that library counter so long ago and gathered titles long forgotten into my arms. Reading used to be a way for me to escape the world. It was a way to travel to other lands without moving. It was a way to vicariously live someone else’s life without risking changing my own. But reading with my learning partner turned books into a life-altering force for me. I found myself using reading to engage with my life, instead of trying to escape its difficulties. When we learned about someone else’s life, I began to wonder if and how it could and should change my own. Rebbetzin Heller once remarked that even classical fiction can block us sometimes spiritually, when the story itself takes G‑d out of the picture. We are drawn into the characters’ lives, and we begin to see life through their eyes. It may just be a story, but each story leaves an imprint on our minds. It changes how we see ourselves and how we see the world.

Our two-person book club has shown me three ways to use what we read:

1. Ask Yourself What You Have Learned

I used to read without really thinking critically about what I was absorbing. Now, after each paragraph, I ask myself: What have I learned from this? Sometimes the ideas are simple and familiar. Sometimes it seems at first glance like a simple idea, but then I see that I have just begun to the scratch the surface of the words. The blessing of a reading partner is that she learns something that I never would have noticed from the same idea. It opens my eyes to how multi-tiered and deep wisdom can be.

2. Teach What You Have Learned

When I have to actually put into words what I have learned, and give it over to another person, it takes my reading to a whole other level. And once I share an idea with one person, I am able to share it with others in my life as well. Reading used to be a way for me to only receive the author’s knowledge and experience. Now it is also a way for me to give and share with others.

3. Use What You Read

The words connect us. They inspire us. They make us want to learn moreIf I learn about a character trait that I admire, I try to emulate it that day. If I read about an amazing time in history, I think about how we can bring some of those strengths into our lives today. I try to use the ideas to make me a better wife, a better mother, a better person.

One of my daughters happens to be an early riser like me, and one morning as I was checking my phone, pulling out the bread for sandwiches and making the baby’s bottle, I saw her flipping through a Torah book that she had received for her bat mitzvah. Suddenly, I had an idea. “Let’s learn two pages a day together in the morning.” My daughter liked the idea. It takes us only five minutes, as she holds a cup of hot chocolate and I sip my first coffee of the day. But the words connect us. They inspire us. They make us want to learn more. I think I may have even come up with a name for our new mother-and-daughter learning: the Beginning of Life Book Club. May we use what we read to grow and inspire, book by book.