At a time of growing reliance on smartphones and electronic devices, we need a strong reminder of the importance of reading books.
In Books for Living, Will Schwalbe celebrates multiple genres, including cookbooks, memoirs, novels, poetry, children’s stories and ancient texts. His well-received previous book, The End of Your Life Book Club, related the decision by the author and his dying mother to read books together.
Books for Living asserts that everything we need to know can be found in a book. We can learn from the worst books “even if it is just how crass and base, or boring and petty, or cruel and intolerant, the human race can be.”
A friend of Schwalbe’s collected thousands of books and decided at age 70 to give them away, saving only his 100 favorite volumes. Among his saved titles was Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon. Schwalbe regards it as one of the 10 best books he has read, which begs the question, “What are the other nine?”
Among his favorites is Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, the spellbinding story of a group of women in Iran who secretly and at great personal risk started a book club to discuss classics.
Books for Living begins with a vivid nightmare. In the dream, Schwalbe is rushing through an airport to catch a plane when he realizes he does not have a book to read during the flight. He cannot find a bookstore and misses the flight.
He lauds a book titled The Importance of Living, published in 1937, which suggests loafing, savoring food and drink, and not striving too much. The author, Lin Yutang, says few people appreciate the value of solitude and contemplation. Schwalbe recommends naps. “Sadly,” he says, “we live in a world that is increasingly intolerant of naps and nappers.”
Schwalbe excoriates the heavy reliance on electronic communication to the detriment of reading, but admits he has 2,391 “friends” on Facebook and lists the many helpful postings he finds there, seemingly blind to the contradiction involving his jeremiad against electronic devices.
In a chapter titled “1984: Disconnecting,” Schwalbe asks us to imagine a law that would require every citizen to carry a tracking device and check it five times an hour, but then adds there is no need for such a device because smartphones already dominate our lives.
Books for Living offers tender moments. Regarding the classic David Copperfield, Schwalbe says that almost nothing reduces him “to a puddle of tears” quicker than the illness and death of Copperfield’s beloved Dora.
Schwalbe also was moved by the R.J. Palacio’s middle-grade novel Wonder, about Auggie, a boy with a craniofacial deformity who is entering sixth grade after years of home schooling. “I desperately wanted Auggie to fit in at school, to be happy, to find friends.”
Schwalbe includes a compelling chapter on the birth of AIDS awareness in the early 1980s, when no one knew what caused the fatal illness that seemed to affect homosexuals in disproportionate numbers. Schwalbe, who is gay, worried that he might be infected. He praises The Gifts of the Body, a 1994 novel by Rebecca Brown about a home-care worker who visits AIDS patients. The book covers “the horrors of the early years of the AIDS plague, but also the toil, drudgery, mundanity of it all.”
Schwalbe’s enthusiasm might spur more people to cut back on gadgets and visit a library or a bookstore and maybe even join a book club.
Because introducing children to the joys of reading is imperative, I recommend programs created to get more books into the hands of children. Among them: Read to Grow, Reach Out and Read and Books for Africa.
“Books,” Schwalbe concludes, “remain one of the strongest bulwarks we have against tyranny — but only as long as people are free to read all different kinds of books, and only as long as they actually do so.”
Books for Living, by Will Schwalbe; Knopf, 272 pp., $25.95
Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford, Conn., and a former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.