Thursday, March 2, 2017

"Books for Living," by William Schwalbe

I have posted recently on two books about books and reading, one of which I liked very much (posted on1/5/17) and the other which I found disappointing (posted on 2/15/17). I have now read a third such book. (Just as I sometimes read several books in a row by one author, I sometimes read several books in a row or in close proximity on a certain theme). This third book, “Books for Living” (Knopf, 2017), by Will Schwalbe, is a collection of 28 short essays on a variety of subjects, mostly on specific books but sometimes on other book-related topics. The essays on specific books are not reviews, let alone academic “literary criticism,” but meditations on the books and on how Schwalbe connects to and/or learns from them. The title of each chapter lists the book in question and then a brief subtitle; examples include “Stuart Little: Searching,” “Giovanni’s Room: Connecting,” “David Copperfield: Remembering,” and “1984: Disconnecting.” The range of books on which Schwalbe focuses is eclectic: old and new, famous and not famous, literary and less so, excellent and not-so-excellent-but-met-a-need-at-one-point, novels and memoirs, books he read as a child and books he has read more recently (he is now “fifty-something”). In addition to those already mentioned, the books include, to give just a flavor of his choices: “The Importance of Living,” “Bartleby the Scrivener,” “The Little Prince,” “Song of Solomon,” “Rebecca,” and “Death Be Not Proud.” The author’s voice is modest, conversational, questioning, musing. To provide a better idea of his focus and tone, let me quote a few sentences from the introduction. “What follows are stories of books I’ve discovered that have helped me and others in ways big and small with some of the specific challenges of living in our modern world, with all its noise and distractions.” And: “’What are you reading?’ isn’t a simple question when asked with genuine curiosity; it’s really a way of asking, ‘Who are you now and who are you becoming?’” I found the low-key but sincere tone of these short meditations on books to be engaging, thought-provoking, and enjoyable.
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