Books

Book Review

‘Books for Living’ is full of diverting essays about important reads

Will Schwalbe
Will Schwalbe

Anyone who read Will Schwalbe’s “The End of Your Life Book Club” or has worked with him in his career as a well-respected book publishing executive knows that he lives out his mantra that “everything you need to know you can find in a book.” In his latest, “Books for Living,” a natural follow-up to his poignant, best-selling debut memoir, Schwalbe breezily walks us through a handful of books that have served as touchstones in his life.

At the beginning, the author is quick to note that these are not necessarily his “favorite books,” and he’s rightly “skeptical about finding any one book that will give me the answer to every question I have.” Rather, each selection either arrived in his life at exactly the right moment or speaks to him about a specific lesson, whether it’s a gentle reminder of the importance of “connecting,” “remembering,” “choosing kindness,” or “hugging,” or a more surprising discussion that emphasizes “quitting” or “embracing mediocrity.”

Some of the books are well-known, even canonical — “The Odyssey,” “David Copperfield,” “1984,” “Song of Solomon,” “Rebecca” — while others may be unfamiliar to all but the most omnivorous readers — e.g., Edward de Bono’s “Lateral Thinking,” which “does something more powerful than any computer: it helps you figure out solutions when you have the questions all wrong”; Portuguese writer Machado de Assis’s “The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas,’’ a book that taught Schwalbe to “embrace and enjoy my boredom”; or Xavier de Maistre’s “A Journey Around My Room,” written in 1790 and containing the message that “you don’t have to travel the world to see the ways we mistreat one another; it’s as close as the street outside our windows.”

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One book that recurs throughout is Lin Yutang’s “The Importance of Living,” which provides “profound wisdom and a radical rejection of the philosophy of ambition.” Similarly, Schwalbe finds echoes of Yutang’s message in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” As he writes, “Bartleby may not be the most appealing model of resistance, but at the same time the purity of his stance, and the confidence with which he manages to maintain it, offer a weirdly refreshing touchstone in a society that is terrified of people who can’t be threatened or induced to participate in activities they don’t like.”

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Like Bartleby, Schwalbe seems uninterested in navigating more intellectually challenging shores; instead, he serves as a personable, amiable, relentlessly optimistic guide to a curated bookshelf that some readers will find random. He rarely dives deep, remaining consistently chatty, mostly upbeat, and frequently digressive. Indeed, one gets the sense that, given his vast experience in literature, Schwalbe could write another 10 books exactly like this one.

In the most moving essay, about Rebecca Brown’s “The Gifts of the Body,” Schwalbe wrestles with his haunting memories of the AIDS epidemic as it swept through the gay community during the 1980s. Brown’s book, he writes, “captures not just the horrors of the early years of the AIDS plague but also the toil, drudgery, mundanity of it all.” Here, Schwalbe truly shines, exploring a book that tackles age-old problems: “the big ones, the ones that writers have been tackling for thousands of years: the problem of pain, meaning, purpose, happiness.” Even for those with no direct experience with the AIDS epidemic, this chapter effectively demonstrates how books “demand that we briefly put aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s.”

That last is a significant sentiment that should not be taken lightly, especially in our current fraught political and social climate. Indeed, one of the biggest takeaways may not be overtly political, but it’s relevant and timely nonetheless: “Books remain one of the strongest bulwarks we have against tyranny — but only so long as people are free to read all different kinds of books, and only so long as they actually do so.”

Throughout these pleasant, diverting essays, the author shows us how “[r]eading is an art we practice our whole lives,” and while the book may not hit hard enough for critics or scholars, it should convince even reluctant readers to pick up a book and “help them find their way in the world and give them pleasure while they are at it.”

Eric Liebetrau, the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews, can be reached at eliebetrau@kirkus.com.