I first opened Books For Living while waiting to board a plane at Denver International Airport. As I started reading the introduction, the moment struck me as serendipitous: The book’s opening scene takes place in an airport. Author Will Schwalbe details what he’s dubbed the Reader’s Nightmare: He’s about to board a plane when he realizes he’s completely book-less. Frantically, he runs through the airport, looking for a bookstore. The final boarding call is announced over the loudspeakers, but he can’t find a single book anywhere. Faced with missing his flight or boarding the plane literarily starved, he begins to scream. The dream ends as his scream echoes.
Thanks to Schwalbe’s book, I didn’t have to endure the discomfort of a mid-morning flight sans reading material. Instead, I happily turned the pages of Books For Living (Penguin Random House, December 2016) while sipping a tiny, much-too-hot cup of cheap airline coffee. Schwalbe, a committed bibliophile, cherry-picked 26 books that have, somehow, helped him learn a life lesson. Stuart Little, for example, taught him about searching for something important and, moreover, the importance of your mood and outlook during such a journey, while the 1938 English novel Rebecca taught him betrayal and the value of steadfast friendship.
In each stand-alone chapter, Schwalbe intimately—and anecdotally—explains a literary work’s impact on his life. His books choices are diverse (David Copperfield and The Taste of Country Cooking both find space in the pages) and sometimes his takeaways are slightly surprising: In his chapter on George Orwell’s 1984, Schwalbe contemplates the stew of isolation, addiction, and fatigue caused by our constant obsession with our screens, social media accounts, and devices. Meanwhile Girl on the Train, a 2015 suspenseful thriller, taught Schwalbe about the importance of trust—even the act of trusting blindly. To see how he arrived at such a lesson, you’ll have to pick up a copy.
And you should: The casual but polished way in which Schwalbe writes about some of his favorite books—and smartly peppers in his own life’s stories—makes for an engaging and easy read. Books For Living quietly reminds readers that books are works of art that carry great import in our lives, and might even leave you wondering what your own list of books for living might look like.