Some years ago, I was on a cruise around the Mediterranean. On a day spent at sea, I devoured Will Schwalbe’s moving debut memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club, much of which has stuck with me to this day. I requested his second book, Books for Living: A Reader’s Guide to Life from my local library with high hopes, and settled down to read it amidst the mounting pre-lockdown panic which Covid-19 brought with it. Books for Living proved to be a wonderful piece of diversion from current events.
The New York Times deems Books for Living ‘inspiring and charming’, and Publishers Weekly comments ‘Schwalbe’s tremendous experience with reading and his stellar taste make for a fine guide to the varied and idiosyncratic list of books for which he advocates.’ Publishers Weekly also promises that ‘By the end of the book, all serious readers will have added some titles to their to-read lists.’ (I certainly did this.) The book’s blurb describes it as a ‘magical exploration of the power of books to shape our lives in an era of constant connectivity’ – or, as I found, in the midst of a pandemic.
For Schwalbe, as indeed is the case for most of us, I expect, reading is a way ‘to make sense of the world, to become a better person, and to find the answers to the big (and small) questions’. In Books for Living, he has therefore compiled a list of books ‘that speak to the specific challenges of living in our modern world.’ He has chosen to split the book into quite a few different sections, entitled in such ways as ‘Searching’ and ‘Trusting’ to ‘Quitting’ and ‘Disconnecting’. Each of these sections focuses on a specific work. Books for Living opens with a recurring dream of Schwalbe’s, in which ‘the thought of being bookless for hours… jolts me awake in a cold sweat.’
The books which he selects are wonderfully varied; he considers running and napping with the aid of Haruki Murakami; the enduring characters in Dickens’ David Copperfield; the core message of the delightful Stuart Little by E.B. White… There are books here which were originally written for children and adults, and which take place in fictional worlds. There are gems of non-fiction, and even the odd self-help book. He writes of ‘crowd-pleasers’, and of those books which he feels have been unfairly forgotten, or have slipped under the radar of the reading public.
Not all of the books which Schwalbe addresses and comments upon in Books for Living are his favourites, but each has either spoken to him, stuck with him for a particular reason, or allowed him to see things from a perspective other than his own. Some of these books helped him through incredibly difficult periods in his life, primarily the death of friends from HIV, and the passing of his mother. One of the most touching chapters, I felt, is ‘Giovanni’s Room’, where a beloved librarian in his hometown quietly selected a lot of LGBTQ+ literature for Schwalbe to read, to help him realise and come to terms with his homosexuality.
Schwalbe continually asserts how the reading process of any book changes him as a person. He writes: ‘I’m not the same reader when I finish a book as I was when I started. Brains are tangles of pathways, and reading creates new ones. Every book changes your life.’ He goes on to comment: ‘I’m not just a fifty-something-year-old reader; I’m the reader I was at every age I’ve ever been, with all the books I’ve ever read and all the experiences I’ve ever had constantly shifting and recombining in my brain.’
Schwalbe wonderfully demonstrates the power which books hold over all of us. It is a joy to encounter a book like this, written by someone who reads so widely. Not all of the individual tomes appealed directly to me as a reader, but I read Schwalbe’s own commentary with a great deal of interest. I appreciate his honestly and openness throughout. So much of Books for Living was relatable for me as a fellow bookworm. It is a book which is as entertaining as it is full of heart.
I shall end this review with perhaps the most enduring message from the book: ‘When I most enjoy reading, I’m not really conscious that I’m reading. It’s at those moments when I’m so wrapped up in a book, so engrossed, so moved, so obsessed, or so fascinated, that the part of my mind that is watching me read – maybe keeping track of the pages or trying to decide how much longer I should keep on reading – that part of my mind has gone away.’