Books for Living
How fitting is it that the first book I review in 2017 is a book about books?
When it's Will Schwalbe's BOOKS FOR LIVING, I can't think of a better way to start the year. Schwalbe’s THE END OF YOUR LIFE BOOK CLUB was the story of the reading experience he and his mother shared as she fought pancreatic cancer for the last two years of her life. He’s expanded on that book in this charming extended love letter to some of the books he says have "helped me and others in ways big and small with some of the specific challenges of living in our modern world."
When it comes to his reading tastes, Schwalbe, former editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books and now back in publishing after founding the recipe website Cookstr.com, confesses he's "not a particularly disciplined or systematic seeker." If his eclectic selections are any indication, that's something of an understatement. In short, those who are worried they'll be overwhelmed by guilt at a litany of "good for you" classics they know they "should’ve read" need not fear this book. "Some are undoubtedly among the great works of our time," Schwalbe says in describing a few of his favorites. "Others most certainly are not."
"Schwalbe is an engaging, often self-deprecating companion throughout, and it's as easy to imagine him sharing these insights in a friendly conversation over a coffee as it is to read them on the page."
In many ways, BOOKS FOR LIVING is less an account of the specific books he cherishes than it is a gentle nudge to encourage readers to recall or seek out the kinds of books that will provide them with the meaning, solace and enlightenment he's gleaned from his cherished picks.
The format of BOOKS FOR LIVING is similar to its predecessor. Each of its 26 chapters discusses a different book, connecting the work to a specific element of human experience, from remembering (DAVID COPPERFIELD) to kindness (R. J. Palacio's young adult book, WONDER) to deciding whom to trust, a skill Schwalbe believes can be learned from reading books with unreliable narrators, like Paula Hawkins' bestseller, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. In all of this, Schwalbe is less concerned with literary exegesis than he is with explaining why each of his choices speaks to some important aspect of his life.
Not surprisingly for someone who shared an experience of reading to usher a loved one out of the world, a persistent theme is the way favorite books can link the living to the dead. For Schwalbe, DAVID COPPERFIELD summons up memories of the "Davids" he’s known, including his own husband, but especially a friend named David Baer, killed in a freak bicycle accident in New York City in 1986. THE GIFTS OF THE BODY by Rebecca Brown, a novel about a home care worker tending to AIDS victims, brings to mind those years in Schwalbe's experience of that epidemic, including his work as a volunteer answering the hotline for Gay Men's Health Crisis. John Gunther's DEATH BE NOT PROUD, the bestselling 1949 account of his son's death from a brain tumor, inspires the nonreligious Schwalbe to reflect on the meaning of prayer.
Not all of the topics are so weighty. Haruki Murakami's memoir, WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT RUNNING, inspires a meditation on that pursuit, while THE TASTE OF COUNTRY COOKING by Edna Lewis --- the granddaughter of a former slave --- appeals to Schwalbe's passion for food. ("I live to eat. I think about food all day long."). Herman Melville's story, "Bartleby, the Scrivener," according to Schwalbe, is an homage to the perverse value of simply giving up. There's barely an aspect of a well-lived life that isn't touched on somewhere in these pages.
Though Schwalbe acknowledges he'll never find an all-purpose book --- "the literary equivalent of a Ginsu knife" --- he does offer an iconic work of sorts that's threaded through these essays. That book --- Lin Yutang's THE IMPORTANCE OF LIVING --- is one that will be unfamiliar to most readers. Written in 1937 and a worldwide bestseller in its time (Lin was a friend of Nobel Prize winner Pearl Buck), it had been out-of-print for decades. It's part work of philosophy, part self-help book and part memoir, a book Schwalbe says was intended to "inspire the reader toward idleness, contemplation, enjoyment of friends and tea and wine, reading, and nature" --- in short, many of the pursuits he believes make life worth living.
Schwalbe is an engaging, often self-deprecating companion throughout, and it's as easy to imagine him sharing these insights in a friendly conversation over a coffee as it is to read them on the page. Helpfully, he provides a list of all the books and authors discussed in this volume, offering a reading list it would take one years to exhaust.
To ask Will Schwalbe to stop reading would be about as fruitless as suggesting he cease breathing or eating. Anyone who shares his passion for books will have it sparked by his enthusiasm and unadulterated joy at these encounters with the written word. And those who haven't yet been seized by that marvelous affliction may succumb at the hands of this delightful work.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on January 4, 2017