Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Books for Living

I read and really enjoyed Will Schwalbe's The End of Your Life Book Club, and so I knew I would also read and probably enjoy his most recent book about books, Books for Living.  I read it in May and did enjoy it but not quite as much as the End of  Your Life.  I think that probably is because there were fewer books in the more recent book that I was familiar with, less to relate to, I suppose.  More importantly, there were fewer books that Will discussed that I felt compelled to read myself.

For example, he talks a lot about Lin Yutang's The Importance of Living, a book and author I had not heard of, and while he mentions some interesting ideas that Yutang promotes, there was a bit of a disconnect for me as it didn't really sound like a book I would like.

I have read E.B. White's Stuart Little but not in decades and I found it a distant second to the incomparable Charlotte's Web.  It touched me so little that I never foisted it upon my own children. It was interesting to read about why Will liked it so much and found in Stuart a role model, but I don't feel motivated to reread it myself.

I did resonate with his love of David Copperfield--I share a deep love for that book as well, but we each got something quite different from it.  I see Steerforth as one of Dickens' amoral villains, and Will found him flawed but not horrible and dismissed his betrayal of Little Emily more easily than I found palatable.

We were definitely on common ground with Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. I absolutely love this book, and I was totally in sync with Will's admiration for Lamott's voice in this book. I've read it at least three times, and am looking forward to reading it again.

The one book that I did come away from this reading wanting to read myself was Anne Morrow Lindberg's Gift from the Sea. The structure of it, as described by Will, appeals to me.  I find her intriguing and Will's discussion of her life as that of a celebrity wife as well as author was interesting.

I might also read Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener, if only because the basic idea of a person refusing to leave the premises after he's fired surfaced in other story lines recently and I got to brag about knowing "the source" of that plot point.

What I really liked most about Books for Living, however, was the memoir part of the book.  Will talks about his life as a young gay man in the 70s and 80s, how he was personally affected by the AIDS epidemic.  We are roughly the same age, and the books and movies and other trappings of life during this time were familiar and real to me.  I like the idea of talking about your life in the context of the books that shaped you and helped you find your place and space in the world.  For both Will and me, books provided role models, and reading created purpose and structure.

In the end, it doesn't matter that I haven't read many of the books that shaped Will.  I feel richer having read about the books that matter to him. I think that might be his point after all.  We both value our reading lives, and part of the enjoyment is discussing books, those I've read and those I haven't.


  1. Gifts From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindberg is one of my favorite books...especially if I can read it while I'm on vacation at the beach. :D

  2. Great commentary on this book.

    I tend to love books about books. Talking about one's life o=in terms of influential books also makes sense to me.

    I think it is impossible for any two people to have too close of match between books read. There are so many books out there. Thus, I think it is unavoidable that a account like this will list a lot of books that one has not read.

  3. I put this one back because the books that he was talking about didn't resonate with me. I guess I need to rethink that.

  4. I have a copy of The End of Your Life Book Club but am afraid to read it for spoilers. I feel like I need to read all the books mentioned first!

    How is he on giving enough vs. too much away?

    1. Not to worry--I didn't feel like anything had spoilers, even with Girl on the Train, he kept pretty vague. Most of the books were non-fiction anyway.

  5. Thanks for your review. I decided to look up The End of Your Life Book Club and it sounds interesting. I think that's great that Will Schwalbe and his Mom who was dying of cancer set up a book club where they could read and discuss books together. Been said that books will be there for you when you need them and I guess the end of life is the ultimate test.

  6. I've never read End of Your Life Book Club but now I kind of want to read both of them.

  7. Wow nice review! I too liked Will's first book and I like books about books. This one might not resonate to me as much as his first one did either, but I like how you talked about why it still had good qualities about it. It sounds worthwhile.

  8. I completely agree with your remarks on Charlotte's Web versus Stuart Little. Bartleby the Scrivener is hilarious. I quote it often. :)