Schwalbe’s ‘Books for Living’ is a love letter to reading – USA TODAY
To explain what Will SchwalbeÃ¢Â€Â™s Books for LivingÃ‚Â is, a good place to begin might be to say what it isnÃ¢Â€Â™t.
It isnÃ¢Â€Â™t David DenbyÃ¢Â€Â™s deeper, more ambitious, far more sophisticated Great BooksÃ‚Â Ã¢Â€Â” though in concept it shares much with DenbyÃ¢Â€Â™s recent Lit Up, a reexamination of 24 classics on a high school syllabus Ã¢Â€Â” or similar offerings by his colleagues in the book-reclamation biz, Michael Dirda (Browsings) and Robert Gottlieb (Avid Reader).
Which is not to imply that Schwalbe, best known for his best-selling 2012 memoir The End of Your Life Book Club (in which he shared his love of reading with his dying mother), doesnÃ¢Â€Â™t have interesting things to say about literature in Books for LivingÃ‚Â (Knopf, 288 pp., *** out of four stars). ItÃ¢Â€Â™s just that he does so in a quiet, personal way.
Instead of trying to dust off some forgotten tome and convince us of its value, he focuses on its pressing relevance at some critical juncture in his life. He isnÃ¢Â€Â™t arguing Ã¢Â€Â” and certainly not shilling Ã¢Â€Â” on behalf of a book or author; heÃ¢Â€Â™s passing on his own experience and leaving us to identify with it or not.
Of course we do identify with it, typically, in large part because Schwalbe presents himself so convincingly as an Everyman. He doesnÃ¢Â€Â™t pretend, or even aspire, to the scholarly expertise of Denby and Dirda, or to GottliebÃ¢Â€Â™s breezy insider status. He conveys this humility with his easygoing, egalitarian tone and his high-low eclecticism, which ranges from HomerÃ¢Â€Â™s The Odyssey and MelvilleÃ¢Â€Â™s Bartleby the Scrivener to E.B. WhiteÃ¢Â€Â™s Stuart Little and Paula HawkinsÃ¢Â€Â™ The Girl on the Train.
I could have done without some of SchwalbeÃ¢Â€Â™s choices,Ã‚Â such as Anne Morrow LindberghÃ¢Â€Â™s Gift from the Sea, to my mind more memorable for its authorÃ¢Â€Â™s last name than for its meandering content.
On the other hand, I confess to having been touched by SchwalbeÃ¢Â€Â™s inclusion of David Copperfield, not the best Dickens novel but a personal favorite of mine and, as it happens, of Dickens himself. And I found myself envious that a teacher steered Schwalbe toward James BaldwinÃ¢Â€Â™s GiovanniÃ¢Â€Â™s Room at precisely the moment he needed it as a young gay man; I read it sadly out of sync with the conditions of my own life (though better late than never).
In the end, Schwalbe fulfills the promise of his earlier memoir with this new book, in which the communion of readers trumps even what theyÃ¢Â€Â™re reading.
Ã¢Â€ÂœI used to say that the greatest gift you could ever give anyone is a book,Ã¢Â€Â he writes. Ã¢Â€ÂœBut I donÃ¢Â€Â™t say that anymore because I no longer think itÃ¢Â€Â™s true. I now say that a book is the second greatest gift. IÃ¢Â€Â™ve come to believe that the greatest gift you can give anyone is to take the time to talk with someone about a book youÃ¢Â€Â™ve shared.Ã¢Â€Â
Books for Living is just that sort of gift, and one that keeps giving.
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