Books for Living (Schwalbe)

Books for Living 
Will Schwalbe, 2016
Knopf Doubleday
288 pp.
ISBN-13:
9780385353540


Summary
From the author of the beloved New York Times best-selling The End of Your Life Book Club, an inspiring and magical exploration of the power of books to shape our lives in an era of constant connectivity.

Why is it that we read? Is it to pass time? To learn something new? To escape from reality?

For Will Schwalbe, reading is a way to entertain himself but also to make sense of the world, to become a better person, and to find the answers to the big (and small) questions about how to live his life.

In this delightful celebration of reading, Schwalbe invites us along on his quest for books that speak to the specific challenges of living in our modern world, with all its noise and distractions. In each chapter, he discusses a particular book—what brought him to it (or vice versa), the people in his life he associates with it, and how it became a part of his understanding of himself in the world.

These books span centuries and genres (from classic works of adult and children’s literature to contemporary thrillers and even cookbooks), and each one relates to the questions and concerns we all share. Throughout, Schwalbe focuses on the way certain books can help us honor those we’ve loved and lost, and also figure out how to live each day more fully.

Rich with stories and recommendations, Books for Living is a treasure for everyone who loves books and loves to hear the answer to the question: "What are you reading?" (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Will Schwalbe has worked in publishing (most recently as senior vice president and editor in chief of Hyperion Books); 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 on the boards of Yale University Press and the Kingsborough Community College Foundation. He is the coauthor, with David Shipley, of Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better. (From the publisher.)



Book Reviews
[I]nspiring and charming—a bit fusty at times, but endearingly so…My favorite of Schwalbe's essays are the ones that praise underappreciated values, those sometimes incorrectly categorized as vices. There's an ode to loafing and lounging…a piece on how it's O.K. to blow off your friends and stay at home…. And…a lovely paean to the joys of quitting, as illustrated by the greatest quitter of all time, Herman Melville's Bartleby…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."
A.J. Jacobs - New York Times Book Review


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


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


(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


Schwalbe's...latest effort, bearing an equally misleading and presumptuous title, is a collection of essays on his emotional and psychological attachment to specific books. Unfortunately, this attachment is not always elaborated…. Verdict: For readers who prefer their tea lukewarm. —Lonnie Weatherby, McGill Univ. Lib., Montreal
Library Journal


(Starred review.) [F]inely crafted, generously candid, and affecting…. 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


Schwalbe doesn’t go into that much detail about each book; rather, he leads by example, focusing on a book…in the context of something…that happened to him. In an age when the number of readers is declining, a delightful book like this might just snare a few new recruits.
Kirkus Reviews


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…. Anyone who shares his passion for books will have it sparked by his enthusiasm and unadulterated joy at these encounters with the written word.
Bookreporter



Discussion Questions
1. Discuss the significance of the George R. R. Martin epigraph that opens Books for Living. How does it set the tone for the book?

2. In the introduction to the book, Schwalbe discusses the Internet’s limitations in helping to answer the big questions: "the problem of pain, meaning, purpose, happiness." How does Schwalbe’s discussion of modern-day living and technology act as a structuring element throughout Books for Living? Discuss the message of "slowing down" and savoring the printed word (and life itself) that Schwalbe champions. Did this message resonate with you?

3. On page 7, Schwalbe points out how reading has a tremendous influence on a person’s worldview and how "every book changes your life." Do you agree with this assertion? What books have quietly changed your life? Which books immediately announced themselves as significant to you? How do books that you’ve found to be less-than-enjoyable end up shaping you?

4. Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living is a seminal text for the author and is mentioned frequently throughout the book. Discuss Yutang’s "radical rejection of the philosophy of ambition." How does the concept of idleness run contrary to the American value system? After reading this chapter, were you inspired to change any of your habits?

5. In "Searching," Schwalbe discusses his appreciation for Stuart Little after rereading it as an adult. Have you ever returned to a book from your childhood or adolescence? If so, how did your feelings toward the book evolve? Did it gain new meaning for you?

6. Discuss the idea of trust in relation to a book’s narration, per Schwalbe’s discussion of The Girl on the Train. What books have twisted your expectations because of narrative voice or voices? How does the idea of the "unreliable narrator" reflect greater truths about the subjectivity of human experience?

7. In "Connecting," Schwalbe discusses how Miss Locke, his high school librarian, helped to shape his identity by introducing him to James Baldwin and other masters of literature. Who in your life opened the door for you to discover influential writers and works? Have you ever been able to thank this person for doing that?

8. On page 83, Schwalbe discusses the feeling of tremendous sadness that came over him after finishing David Copperfield as a teen, "mostly because I was going to miss these characters so much." Which books have elicited a reaction of sadness after its conclusion? What characters have jumped off the page for you, become intimately familiar? Does the act of rereading these books provide comfort to you?

9. The idea of reading as a way to combat grief is a seminal theme in Books for Living, particularly in Schwalbe’s discussion of his friend David Baer. Is there a book that has provided comfort for you in a particularly dark time?

10. Discuss the concept of "vertical thinking" versus "lateral thinking." How would you identify yourself? How do books, and the act of reading, innately provide the reader with the opportunity to become more lateral thinkers?

11. In Anne Morrow Lindberg’s Gift from the Sea, she emphasizes the importance of spending time alone, particularly for women. Do you share this point of view? How does modern-day living and our constant interaction with technology inhibit us from solitude? When was the last time you conscientiously "disconnected" and spent time by yourself?

12. On page 122, Schwalbe quotes the cookbook author Nigella Lawson, who asserts that "food marks a connection between the living." Explore this statement. How does cooking and sharing meals together shape our humanity? How did Edna Lewis’s work emphasize the connection between cooking and community?

13. In the discussion of Bartleby, the Scrivener, Schwalbe discusses the "radical" nature of the character, asserting that his radicalness is not the result of the fact "that he refuses to do what’s asked of him; it’s that he refuses to give a reason." Consider all the times in which you have quit a pursuit. What feelings have you associated with that experience? Were you able to adhere to the principle of "passive resistance," or did you find yourself feeling obligated, or even guilty, because of the act of quitting?

14. In "Mastering the Art of Reading," Schwalbe describes reading as a "communion" with the book, achieving perfect harmony when you forget the self and are completely immersed in the book’s pages. How did Zen in the Art of Archery reveal surprising truths about the meditative act of reading for Schwalbe?

15. Which of the books featured in Books for Living have you read, if any? If you have, did you experience any connections to the text that were similar to the author’s? How did reading this book help re-contextualize them for you? Are there any you want to revisit with fresh eyes? If you haven’t encountered any of these titles, which are you inspired to read?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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