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Books for Living Hardcover – Deckle Edge, December 27, 2016
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100 (Fiction) Books to Read in a Lifetime
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“In Books for Living the brilliant Will Schwalbe takes us on a personal journey through a life of reading. But like any great journey, it is far more than an accumulation of miles, or words. Books for Living is a map, a chart, to the places deep inside ourselves where books can take us. It’s about how stories, how characters, inspire us, guide us, reveal us. Books For Living is now one of my favorite reads of all time, and I know I will revisit it over and over. But be warned. It’s also quite an expensive book to read since I kept calling my local bookseller and ordering the volumes Will mentions in each chapter. This is a beautiful, powerful, warm, funny, awe-inspiring odyssey. An absolutely astonishing gift to all of us who have spent our lives loving books.” —Louise Penny
“There are many folks we love…but the first are in books we took to bed when we were sneaking our flashlights under our blankets to enjoy the last few words. These will probably not be our last love under blankets but the first to teach us to trust. Books for Living encourages us to pull those quilts up to warm us and to teach us to express our hopes and dreams…with a kind universe smiling on us this will only be our first…not our last lesson in comforting…exciting…exploring words.” —Nikki Giovanni
“Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living is a scintillating look at the places books take us. And the books! From The Odyssey to The Girl on the Train, The Little Prince to Reading Lolita in Tehran, with stops in places well-traveled and completely unexpected, Schwalbe uncovers lessons in and around books, including lessons that have nothing to do with the content of the reading. A profound, engaging exploration of the uses to which we put the books of our lives.” —Thomas C. Foster, author of How to Read Literature Like a Professor
“Why do we read and what is to be found there? Reading itself is Will Schwalbe’s great topic, and there is no one better to bring alive the nourishing, challenging intimacy of entering the worlds that books offer us. Each great book we read is an encounter with another human soul, and in this shimmering gem of a book Will Schwalbe miraculously enables his readers to truly experience that depth of different human connections. Along the road we get an accidental memoir with the storied Schwalbe a quietly compelling hero at the center. If we truly need books, as Schwalbe shows us we do, it is because we need each other.” —Elizabeth Alexander, author of The Light of the World
“Books for Living by Will Schwalbe lives wonderfully up to its title. He offers an easy tone, sections chapter by chapter of his chosen stories and their affiliations to our own lives. He reminds me of a diviner who walks the open fields, taps, and reveals something rarely talked about, or perhaps never noticed, in one story or another, but is important. That’s a thrill! I can’t imagine a person who loves books not being grateful. Any season of the year, this book is a gift.” —Mary Oliver
“I very much enjoyed it . . . inspiring and charming . . . Books, to Schwalbe, are our last great hope to keep us from spiraling into the abyss. It’s an old-fashioned thesis—that this ancient medium can save civilization—but I happen to agree. Books build compassion, they inspire reform. They remain, Schwalbe writes, ‘one of the strongest bulwarks we have against tyranny.’ And man, do we need bulwarks right now. Lots of bulwarks . . . Read Schwalbe’s book.” —A.J. Jacobs, The New York Times
“Instead of trying to dust off some forgotten tome and convince us of its value, [Schwalbe] focuses on its pressing relevance at some critical juncture in his life. He isn’t arguing — and certainly not shilling — on behalf of a book or author; he’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 doesn’t pretend, or even aspire, to the scholarly expertise of Denby and Dirda, or to Gottlieb’s breezy insider status. He conveys this humility with his easygoing, egalitarian tone and his high-low eclecticism, which ranges from Homer’s The Odyssey and Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener to E.B. White’s Stuart Little and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train….Books for Living is [a] gift, and one that keeps giving.” —USA Today
“Moving….Schwalbe truly shines.…Pleasant….It should convince even reluctant readers to pick up a book.” —Boston Globe
“Each chapter about a beloved book—Stuart Little, David Copperfield, Song of Solomon, Bird by Bird—is a finely crafted, generously candid, and affecting personal essay, none more moving than the homage to his boarding-school librarian, who subtly steered him to James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, having ‘realized that I was gay at just about the same time I did.’ In this warmly engaging, enlightening, and stirring memoir-in-books and literary celebration, Schwalbe reminds us that reading ‘isn’t just a strike against narrowness, mind control, and domination; it’s one of the world’s greatest joys.’” —Booklist *starred review*
“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. By the end of the book, all serious readers will have added some titles to their to-read lists.” —Publishers Weekly *starred review*
“First-rate….Schwalbe’s enthusiasm for what he covers is contagious. He suggests enough fascinating books to keep you reading well through 2017.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Witty, warm, [and] insightful….A field guide to a handful of titles that might entertain, stir up trouble, or—yes—even save the life a reader already has.” —Shelf Awareness, *starred review*
“Schwalbe’s ‘manifesto for readers’ is not about his favorite books but those that helped him when he had a need. Written in a chatty, conversational style, the book is thematically organized by a wide variety of needs: slowing down, searching, trusting, napping, praying, etc…. In an age when the number of readers is declining, a delightful book like this might just snare a few new recruits.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A delicious indulgence to anyone who loves talking about books and listening to others talk about them, this book recounts some of Schwalbe’s favorite books. He discusses books that helped him through tough times, books that taught him, and books that molded him. This book will get you excited to read like nothing else can.” —Signature Reads
“A love letter to reading, bibliophiles will close the last page with a few more entries on their to-read list.” —Real Simple
“Wonderful….Every chapter…has tempted me to tap the Buy button on my Kindle. The variety of books included is wondrous….Please buy Will Schwalbe’s new book and however many life-giving books he points you toward. I swear you won’t regret it!” —Medium
“This is a charming collection, one that reminds us of the value in reading. It opens new and creative ways of thinking about beloved works, and serves to introduce lesser-known stories that are equally deserving. It takes a special kind of writer to make writing about reading appealing. And we are fortunate to have that writer in Will Schwalbe. Books for Living allows us to reflect and appreciate our own list of books that have influenced the ways we navigate the world. What could be more worth our while?” —Washington Independent Review of Books
“Thoughtful and diverting…Schwalbe’s reading triggers deeply honest, often raw memories of departed friends and mentors, of past mistakes, or prompts the acknowledgement of personal foibles….Poignant.” —BookPage
“In each stand-alone chapter, Schwalbe intimately—and anecdotally—explains a literary work’s impact on his life. His books choices are diverse (David Copperfield and The Taste of Country Cooking both find space in the pages) and sometimes his takeaways are slightly surprising…. The casual but polished way in which Schwalbe writes about some of his favorite books—and smartly peppers in his own life’s stories—makes for an engaging and easy read. Books For Living quietly reminds readers that books are works of art that carry great import in our lives, and might even leave you wondering what your own list of books for living might look like.” —5280
“Very much a work for our age….Books for Living is not an elitist compendium. It is eclectic in books it considers….Vital.” —The Anniston Star
“A sweet and utterly restorative series of vignettes about how books – the right books, at the right times – can not only deepen a life but save it.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“In many ways, Books for Living is less an account of the specific books he cherishes than it is a gentle nudge to encourage readers to recall or seek out the kinds of books that will provide them with the meaning, solace and enlightenment he's gleaned from his cherished picks….Schwalbe is an engaging, often self-deprecating companion throughout, and it's as easy to imagine him sharing these insights in a friendly conversation over a coffee as it is to read them on the page….Anyone who shares his passion for books will have it sparked by his enthusiasm and unadulterated joy at these encounters with the written word. And those who haven't yet been seized by that marvelous affliction may succumb at the hands of this delightful work.” —Bookreporter
About the Author
WILL SCHWALBE has worked in publishing; digital media, as the founder and CEO of Cookstr.com; and as a journalist, writing for various publications, including The New York Times and the South China Morning Post. He is the author of the New York Times best seller The End of Your Life Book Club and coauthor, with David Shipley, of Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better.
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He tells us the story of his life with the books he has read as inspiration for his remembrance of things past. Will would like this reference to Proust because, like Proust, he is highly reflective and his reading helps him to relive the sights and sounds of his childhood and adult life.
I thought to myself, “I could write a book like this,” and I could, just as you, my readers could also look back on the books you have read in your life and share with us just what you thought and felt as you read your favorite books and lived through the events of your life. Perhaps, unlike Will’s book, my book would be mediocre; but as Will points out, that is not a bad thing. It is not trying at all that is sad, for Will reminds us what G.K. Chesterton said: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” We may not be the best writers in the world, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we do what Will does; that is, use our reading to help us understand better the world we think we live in and connect to other people, other times, and other places that expand our consciousness and help us become more human.
Will reveals himself to us as a flawed human being, but one who loves and cares for other people. He has been hurt himself, but he tries very hard not to hurt others. As a gay man he has learned the hard way what it means to reveal himself to others, but in his book he bravely shares his most intimate thoughts and feelings with us. We are the better for his sharing with us his life experiences.
Books for Living is proving to be expensive because I find myself going to Amazon and ordering many of the books Will discusses. For example, Will takes us inside Lin Yutang’s famous book, The Importance of Living, which is now on order for me from Amazon. Will shares this quote from the book: “If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live.” This quote is like a slap in the face to a person like me who has spent his life trying to be productive and achieving. What does it mean? Will says, let’s talk about it and he does, helping us to understand that getting off the fast track in our “age of anxiety” as we simply experience the joy of being and begin to understand that life is a great gift that we must never take for granted.
A bit later in the book Will quotes Confucius who tells us to “never lay straight in bed but always be curled up on one side.” And then Will gives us a very long quote from The Analects of Confucius to explain why this method of resting is so important. I tried Confucius’s suggestion and I like the feeling I experienced as I took a nap, something Will expands on later in his book in his chapter titled What I Talk about When I Talk about Running – Napping. Haruki Murakami, the great Japanese writer, encourages everyone to take naps. Will mentions some of the great people like Eleanor Roosevelt and Winston Churchill who always included naps in their day. I thought, “If it’s good enough for Roosevelt and Churchill, it’s good enough for me.”
Thus far I have mentioned writers Will discusses who were not familiar to me, but he also includes authors like Charles Dickens who are most familiar to me. One of his chapters is dedicated to David Copperfield, one of my favorite books that I have read several times. Will also loves David Copperfield for many of the same reasons I like this great book. Certainly, David Copperfield has one of the greatest cast of characters in all of fiction. Once read, we can never forget Wilkins Micawber, Uriah Heep (that “Heep of infamy”), Aunt Betsy Trotwood, Peggotty, etc. Will laughed and cried as he read about David’s adventures and became more human in the process, which is what Will’s book is all about.
I thought about Anthony Trollope, one of my favorite novelists, as I read Will’s book. Like Trollope, Will talks directly to us and tells us what is on his mind. His writing is so natural that we easily forget we are reading and instead it feels like we are in a conversation with Will, ready to share our own thoughts with him about the special books that have made a difference for good in our lives. And now I am talking directly to you, my readers to say that if you love to read and reading is an important part of your life, you are going to enjoy reading Books for Living and perhaps be prompted to share your own thoughts with us here on Amazon.
Update 1: It is always a downer to write a lengthy review summarizing what is best about a good book and then get for the first vote a "NO" not helpful response. I say to myself, what more could I have done in this review to share with readers what is best about the book? and as I reread the review, I didn't come up with any answers. If anyone reading this update has advice for me, please share your thoughts with me in comments. Thanks. Russell
When I read his earlier “The End of Your Life Book Club,” the wealth of books unfolded with a generosity parallel to the author’s time spent with his mother during her last year. I know I’m not alone in having then gone on to read 80% of the books recommended in that book. And so it is again, with my interest piqued by each essay, and with the handy list at the back of the book to refer to later. Schwalbe could legitimately do a series of these books and we would be the richer for them.
He deftly crafts each chapter around a topic – important life topics such as nourishing, trusting, searching, napping ; even the timing of the book’s release in that liminal zone between Christmas/Hanukkah and New Year’s was brilliant. As I read the book, curled sideways on my living room chaise, knees bent, arm dangling over my head, I encountered the passage from “The Enjoyment of Living,” Lin Yutang’s essay on lying in bed.
“I believe one of the greatest pleasures of life is to curl up one’s legs in bed. The posture of the arms is also very important, in order to reach the greatest degree of aesthetic pleasure and mental power. I believe the best posture is not lying flat on the bed, but being upholstered with big soft pillows at an angle of thirty degrees with either one arm or both arms placed behind the back of one’s head.”
It quite took my breath away. And gave me permission to nap for the rest of the week. Doing research….
Disclaimer: I attended the same Episcopal boarding school that Schwalbe mentions liberally throughout the book, and so especially enjoyed his remembrances about George Tracy and Miss Locke, especially the idea that she masterminded his reading list during the time of his life where he was looking for LGBT role-models in the late 70s, where they were hard to be found.
This book is a true and honest gift from its author to all of us. It reminds us to put down our devices and succumb to the pleasures of the page.