Some see books as an escape from life. Will Schwalbe sees them more as a route to life, a means of engaging the world in its infinite variety. Schwalbe’s Books for Living is simply fun to read; a collection of some 26 book essays, it lends itself, you might think, to casual reading. But once you pick it up it’s impossible to put down. It’s super-fun, but not just a collection of essays. It’s a stealth memoir, personal and cultural, as well as a meditation on questions, answers and the importance of goofing off.
Schwalbe trains his book around a personal North Star; Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living, a book whose real message is well conveyed by the chapter titled “The Importance of Loafing.” Schwalbe does a masterful job of bringing up books we do know, those we think we know and those we do not to craft a wonderful quilt that is full of life and joy, and yes, goofing off and fun.
Each of the essays is perfectly paced and fun to read individually, but the joy to be found here is cumulative and carefully crafted, As Schwalbe discusses the books that have moved him, he becomes our stand-in, our personal reading champion. And we get to know this man in an intimate and utterly unique feat of characterization. We see Schwalbe as a young gay high school student at a time when this was not generally acceptable. The librarian gives him the keys to understand himself, and we realize that Schwalbe is doing the same. By showing us the books that help craft him as a literary character in his own book, we understand from within how reading shapes us.
Make no mistake that the choices you will find here are as outstanding as they are unexpected. It’s a blast to read about what Schwalbe likes and why, and as he writes about the simple joys of reading widely we realize that by virtue of his format (memoir via book), we are reading widely whether we expected to or not. It’s all about the most important question we can ask: “What are you reading?”
Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living is the perfect magic act. We open it for a series of enjoyable single-use essays, and find out by the end that we have lived not only the lives of the books that we have read about, but the reader’s and writer’s as well. But we are the readers, are we not? Better check to be sure you’re asking the right question, and living the right life. Ask early and often; accept conflicting answers. Books will tell you a story. Eventually, not one, but all of them will turn out to be yours.
Will Schwalbe in person is just as much fun as you’d expect. And while you eavesdrop on our conversation by following this link to the MP3 audio file, no need to take notes, Let it flow and enjoy it, you’ll have the books live when you buy Schwalbe’s book. If you’d care to begin life early, just click on the bar below and let your cubicle neighbor enjoy the conversation.