Friday, May 19, 2017

Nonfiction Review: Books for Living

Will Schwalbe became a best-selling author with his book, The End of Your Life Book Club, which described how he and his dying mother discussed books together, as a way to connect. I have not yet read that book, but it has been on my want-to-read list ever since I first heard of it. Schwalbe’s latest book, Books for Living, is a similar exploration of books, a collection of essays describing life lessons he has learned from various books. I was fortunate enough not only to read this wonderful, inspiring book but also to meet Will in person at Booktopia recently.

Books for Living is divided into chapters, with each one referencing a single book and a life lesson that it taught the author. The list of books itself is surprisingly eclectic and not the books you might immediately think of as inspiring. They run the gamut from children’s books to classic literature, from self-help books written more than 80 years ago to popular novels of today. My own copy of the book is filled with dog-eared pages: book titles I want to read myself, inspiring quotes I want to write in my Quote Journal, and moving insights from the author.

For example, there is a chapter on the classic children’s book Stuart Little, written by the renowned E.B White. This chapter is titled Searching, as that is the crux of the lesson that Schwalbe learned from reading the book. He describes his experiences reading Stuart Little as a child, how deeply he connected with the main character (in case you haven’t read it, Stuart is a smartly dressed, polite, adventurous mouse whose parents are regular people…a fact that is barely even mentioned). He writes about the writing of the novel, about E.B. White’s own thoughts on it, and finally what he (Schwalbe) learned from it. Here is an abridged excerpt from those last paragraphs, on the lessons one can learn from Stuart:
“Try not to run away but to go in search.
Try to remain polite when possible, as Stuart always does, and to accept what can’t be changed…
Try to be as brave as Stuart, and as resourceful as he was when he piloted the model boat to victory.
But more than anything: Try to be as cheerful and optimistic as you can be in the face of whatever comes next.”

In other chapters, Schwalbe explains how The Girl on the Train taught him about Trusting, how David Copperfield taught him about Remembering, how Gift from the Sea taught him about Recharging, and how Reading Lolita in Tehran taught him about Choosing Your Life. In all, there are 26 chapters/essays on 26 very different books and the lessons they taught him. Each essay and lesson is entirely unique, and the reading list is wonderfully diverse.

My favorite chapter/essay is the final one, What the Living Do, on the lesson of Living. In it, he recounts the moving story of a wife who finished reading her husband’s big stack of unfinished books after his death, and how that brought her closer to him. Of course, Schwalbe himself wrote an entire book about how books brought he and his mother closer together, as she was dying. This short chapter brought me to tears – and again when I was describing my own experiences to Schwalbe at Booktopia.

I lost my father almost two years ago, and one of the things I miss most is sharing books with him. As a child, he and I (and my mom, too) passed the latest Stephen King novels between us (this was when King was a newly best-selling author). As an adult, I loved to pick out books for my father as gifts – for holidays and birthdays and later, when he was battling cancer, just because. He still loved mysteries, thrillers, and horror – and still loved Stephen King – and I enjoyed finding new books and authors for him to try. When we got together, he’d excitedly tell us about the books he’d been reading. After he died, my husband and I inherited his extensive collection of Stephen King and Dean Koontz books, along with a few other of his favorite thrillers, and seeing that bookcase filled with my dad’s favorite books (in many of which he wrote the date that he read or re-read them) in our bedroom makes me smile and feel closer to him.

Here’s what Schwalbe says on this subject:
“Books and people are bound together. I can’t think about certain books and not about certain people, some living and some dead. The joy I’ve had from these books and from these people, and all I’ve learned from them, merge into one stream in my mind.

We can’t do much for the people we’ve lost, but we can remember them and we can read for them: the books they loved, and books we think they might have chosen.”

I found that entire chapter incredibly moving. As you can probably tell, I absolutely loved reading this thoughtful, special book about books. Schwalbe has a talent for condensing profound wisdom into accessible pieces. This book is not only moving and insightful, it is also warm and witty, like talking about books with a favorite friend. I can’t afford to buy many books for myself (I make generous use of my local library!), but I bought this one, and I know I will turn to it again and again. It’s a lovely reminder of the importance of books in our society, and how even the simplest books can enrich our lives and teach us something.

257 pages, Alfred A. Knopf

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Link to Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, VT, which hosted Booktopia:

Books for Living
by Grof, StanislavHardcover


  1. Such an interesting concept: lessons from books. Now you've got me thinking about what I've learned from books...

    1. Yes, it was a very thought-provoking book - especially how he often learned important lessons from unexpected books!