The title of Will Schwalbe's new book, Books for Living, is a nod to its predecessor, the bestseller that shot this author to prominence, his 2012 "The End of Your Life Book Club." That earlier book recounted the unexpected process of Schwalbe connecting on personal levels with his mother as they read the same books together during the months she was dying of pancreatic cancer; Schwalbe used that personal connection to draw out some encouraging observations about the redemptive potential of reading, even in the face of tragedy.
If the book had one overriding flaw, it was solipsism – the background assumption that the worth of a book is intrinsically bound up in how useful a particular reader finds its contents for addressing particular needs at particular moments. And that solipsism, only in the background for "The End of Your Life Book Club," is front and center all throughout "Books for Living," which centers each of its chapters on a different book and draws a series of reflections from each.
They aren't exactly challenging reflections. Hanya Yanagihara's long and anguished novel about a young man named Jude and his literally tortured life story becomes a sounding board for a long digression about hugging: “We all need space. Some of us need it more than others. For some, like Jude, there's a powerful reason. For others, like me, it's simply the way we're wired, a part of who we are.” From Anne Lamott's popular writing memoir "Bird by Bird," Schwalbe infers lessons about sensitivity: “It's always useful to know what others are feeling, but sometimes it's not a bad idea to keep your feelings to yourself.” Paula Hawkins's "The Girl on the Train" occasions reflections about trust: “Trust is all about instinct. If you had all the facts, you wouldn't need trust.” Even the thousands of readers who loved "The End of Your Life Book Club" might find that a little of this kind of pap goes a long way.
Fortunately, as with that earlier book, this new one is saved by the author's infectious friendly chattiness. At one point when he's writing about learning Latin in school, Schwalbe confesses that he was “waiting for a piece of knowledge that would knock me off my chair,” and he repeatedly asserts that “every book changes your life.” But at its best, his latest series of bookish ruminations is more about gossip than fate: when "Books for Living" is at its most winning, it's more like a high-spirited and digressive talk with a knowledgeable bookstore clerk than a series of Encounters with the Universe.
When he prefaces a recommendation of Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon" with an anecdote about an old friend who left behind “an autobiography composed not of sentences but of books,” anybody who's ever sorted through a dead friend's library will nod with recognition. When he describes Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca" as “a novel powered by jealousy,” fans of the book will smile. When he uses Haruki Murakami's odd book "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" as an opening to talk about the wonder of taking naps – “Napping, like running, produces a dream state – a trance, an out-of-body experience of the type that many chase through drugs and raves but that for the lucky are as near as the road or the bed” – nap-fanciers will feel like they've found a writer who truly understands.
This faith in the wonder of reading is the book's main strength. “Reading isn't just a strike against narrowness, mind control, and domination,” he writes, “it's one of the world's great joys.”
Plutarch's "Parallel Lives," E.B. White's "Stuart Little," John Gunther's "Death Be Not Proud," James Baldwin's "Giovanni's Room," Melville's “Bartleby, the Scrivener” – these and dozens of other titles come up in the course of these wandering meditations, and they sit alongside fare lesser-known fare, like "A Journey Around My Room," a book written by a young French cavalry officer in 1790, or "The Importance of Living," which was written by a Chinese author named Lin Yutang in 1937 and which crops up again and again in Schwalbe's essays. “Good books often answer questions you didn't even know you wanted to ask,” readers are told, and this book asks plenty of those questions.
“Books are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life in this world of endless connectivity,” Schwalbe writes, adding (in one of the book's sharpest insights): “We can't interrupt them; we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them.” Readers who like this kind of quasi-spiritual way of thinking and talking about books will find "Books for Living" 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. And even those of us who like our book experience with a little less hooey will be happy to spend some time listening to a die-hard bookworm making lots of good recommendations.