Books for Living

30211956Books for Living, by Will Schwalbe

from Goodreads: Why is it that we read? Is it to pass time? To learn something new? To escape from reality? For Will Schwalbe, reading is a way to entertain himself but also to make sense of the world, to become a better person, and to find the answers to the big (and small) questions about how to live his life. In this delightful celebration of reading, Schwalbe invites us along on his quest for books that speak to the specific challenges of living in our modern world, with all its noise and distractions. In each chapter, he discusses a particular book—what brought him to it (or vice versa), the people in his life he associates with it, and how it became a part of his understanding of himself in the world. These books span centuries and genres (from classic works of adult and children’s literature to contemporary thrillers and even cookbooks), and each one relates to the questions and concerns we all share. Throughout, Schwalbe focuses on the way certain books can help us honor those we’ve loved and lost, and also figure out how to live each day more fully. Rich with stories and recommendations, Books for Living is a treasure for everyone who loves books and loves to hear the answer to the question: “What are you reading?”


“What are you reading?”

It’s a strangely personal question, isn’t it? There are books we’re happy to show off to a random stranger on the street, books we only pretend to read because they make us look smart, and guilty pleasures we try to hide from friends or passersby because we don’t want to look the person who reads that sort of book (whatever that happens to be).

I think that’s why I find books about books so endlessly fascinating. What books is the author reading? Which ones does he hate? Which ones changed her life?

That’s what Will Schwalbe discusses in Books for Living. These aren’t all books that changed his life in some monumental way, though some did. They are books that have made him stop and look at life a little differently, regret that he didn’t value a friendship highly enough until it was too late, or stop living so much through his smartphone among other things. Whether they’re books meant for children or are heavy tomes from two hundred years ago, Schwalbe discusses the plot of each one and how it corresponds to an incident or person in his life, and how his reading of the book influenced either his behavior at the time, or how he views the person in hindsight. The views he takes of himself are not always flattering- he could have been a better friend, less attentive to his phone and more attentive to people around him.

But that’s part of the beauty of books, isn’t it?  They can be far gentler teachers- and oftimes more effective ones- than the people we encounter in real life. Sure, a lecturer on YouTube can spend ten minutes telling you to stop and smell the roses, but what’s one video when stacked up against the mass of them we see in a given day? A book, on the other hand, by demanding your attention and your thoughts, offers the chance for reflection. If you are actively thinking about what you’re reading, you’re more likely to absorb the information and be influenced by it, for better or for worse. Usually, it’s for the better.

I first encountered Schwalbe’s writing when I read his previous book, The End of your Life Book Club, which told the story of the books Schwalbe and his mother read together during her battle with terminal illness. It was a beautiful, often heart-wrenching read. So when I saw Books for LivingI downloaded it from the library right away and read the whole thing in just over twenty-four hours.

Thanks to this book, I’m looking back at some of my favorites and wondering how they might have changed me. The first one that comes to mind is Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild. Without her story, I wonder if I would have found the courage to start traveling by myself instead of waiting around for friends to find the money and time to accompany me. After reading Wild, I decided that if Strayed could walk most of the Pacific Creft Trail by herself, I could get on a plane and spend a week in London by myself. And so I did. It was one of the best decisions of my life, and I’ve followed it up by spending a week each year in another new-to-me place. I’m currently planning my fourth trip abroad- this one to Iceland.

If you love books about books at all, then I would definitely recommend Books for Living, as well as The End of Your Life Book Club. Schwalbe writes beautifully and candidly about himself and the people around him- and about the books they read. His life isn’t always full of wine and roses, and sometimes he’s not a very good person at all. But with the help of good books and better people, he learns to be better. Just like the rest of us.

“Books remain one of the strongest bulwarks we have against tyranny- but only as long as people are free to read all different kinds of books, and only as long as they actually do so. The right to read whatever you want whenever you want is one of the fundamental rights that helps preserve all the other rights. It’s a right we need to guard with unwavering diligence. But it’s also a right we can guard with pleasure. Reading isn’t just a strike against narrowness, mind control, and domination: It’s one of the world’s great joys.”
– Will Schwalbe, Books for Living

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