Schwalbe’s ‘Books for Living’ is a love letter to reading – USA TODAY
To explain what Will Schwalbeâs Books for LivingÂ is, a good place to begin might be to say what it isnât.
It isnât David Denbyâs deeper, more ambitious, far more sophisticated Great BooksÂ â though in concept it shares much with Denbyâs recent Lit Up, a reexamination of 24 classics on a high school syllabus 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), doesnât have interesting things to say about literature in Books for LivingÂ (Knopf, 288 pp., *** out of four stars). Itâs 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 isnât arguing â and certainly not shilling â on behalf of a book or author; heâs 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 doesnât pretend, or even aspire, to the scholarly expertise of Denby and Dirda, or to Gottliebâs breezy insider status. He conveys this humility with his easygoing, egalitarian tone and his high-low eclecticism, which ranges from Homerâs The Odyssey and Melvilleâs Bartleby the Scrivener to E.B. Whiteâs Stuart Little and Paula Hawkinsâ The Girl on the Train.
I could have done without some of Schwalbeâs choices,Â such as Anne Morrow Lindberghâs Gift from the Sea, to my mind more memorable for its authorâs last name than for its meandering content.
On the other hand, I confess to having been touched by Schwalbeâs 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 Baldwinâs Giovanniâs 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 theyâre reading.
âI used to say that the greatest gift you could ever give anyone is a book,â he writes. âBut I donât say that anymore because I no longer think itâs true. I now say that a book is the second greatest gift. Iâve come to believe that the greatest gift you can give anyone is to take the time to talk with someone about a book youâve shared.â
Books for Living is just that sort of gift, and one that keeps giving.