Books for Living

  • By Will Schwalbe
  • Knopf
  • 288 pp.
  • Reviewed by Tayla Burney
  • March 15, 2017

An intelligent, generous reading road map for navigating life.

Books about books can tend toward the precious, though certainly there are exceptions. Michael Dirda’s Browsings comes to mind, as does the work of Anne Fadiman.

In that vein, Will Schwalbe’s latest, Books for Living, is a love letter to the works that have informed and enriched his life. Given its status as a buzzed-about bestseller, readers may be already familiar with Schwalbe’s previous work, The End of Your Life Book Club.

Admittedly, I had not (and still have not) read that book, which chronicled the books Schwalbe and his dying mother read together and discussed as cancer claimed her. They used books to open a dialogue about broader issues at a pivotal moment in each of their lives.

Schwalbe is back with an even broader lens to tackle the Big Questions that books help us articulate. As he notes in his introduction, “‘What are you reading?’ isn’t a simple question but is rather a way of asking, ‘Who are you now and who are you becoming?’”

Those of us who are readers know that we do a great deal of work through books. By reading, we orient ourselves to the world around us, to each other, and ourselves. We adjust our expectations; we increase our empathy and reevaluate prejudices.

So, the author, Will (reading the book puts you on a first-name basis), helps us to see that work more clearly. By reflecting on and showing us the effect that some of his favorite reads have had on his personal life, he pushes us to do the same.

To bring clarity to his approach, each title is connected to a larger idea. Some seem obvious pairings: Stuart Little is about searching, and Bartleby, the Scrivener leads to thoughts on quitting. Other connections are less clear: Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running spurs a meditation on napping, for example.

Will also writes a moving essay on Rebecca, his thoughts tied to a friend who lived what amounted to a rather sad and empty life. A touching story about a certain someone he wished he could have helped more, but ultimately, his interpretation stood at odds with my own affection for that novel and its moral complexity.

Will’s thoughts on the books I haven’t read were easier to consider. These essays bring to mind the best conversations with fellow avid readers. Will’s thoughts on Wonder did more to make me want to read this blockbuster novel than anything else has. His meditations on how that work of fiction subliminally encourages readers to choose kindness is a welcome reminder for us all.

Something else to appreciate is Will’s penchant for avoiding snobbery. He writes about The Girl on the Train and A Little Life with equal verve and care. One thing I’m tired of is the notion that there is a modern-day canon worth reading and a separate track for those works considered frivolous. Bestsellers are worth our time and consideration whether they fall into the category of weighty literary fiction or not. Besides, policing what people read through that lens discourages them from reading at all.

This is a charming collection, one that reminds us of the value in reading. It opens new and creative ways of thinking about beloved works, and serves to introduce lesser-known stories that are equally deserving.

It takes a special kind of writer to make writing about reading appealing. And we are fortunate to have that writer in Will Schwalbe. Books for Living allows us to reflect and appreciate our own list of books that have influenced the ways we navigate the world. What could be more worth our while?

Tayla Burney is events manager at WAMU (88.5FM), where she runs WAMU Books. She’s an avid reader and passionate literacy advocate who tweets entirely too much. Keep up with her at @taylakaye.

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