Will Schwalbe has written memoir of a life lived intimately with books and people, and a manifesto for all readers.
Books for Living by Will Schwalbe, Knopf, 288 pages, $25.95, Hardcover, December 2016, ISBN 9780385353540
Will Schwalbe is the author of the best-selling book, The End of Your Life Book Club. It is the story of a book club that he formed with his mother as she was dying of pancreatic cancer—of the books they read and the conversations those books inspired. It was, as he writes in his new book, Books for Living, not so much a book written looking for closure, but in an attempt to continue the conversations they were having. Books for Living broadens the conversation and continues it with other people and books that have touched his life.
It is the story of how The Odyssey, and the high school Latin teacher who taught it to him—with an assist from British essayist G. K. Chesterton—taught him about embracing mediocrity. How:
[I]f a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing no matter how well or badly you do it. It’s just plain worth doing. When we denigrate mediocrity, we discourage ourselves and others from trying new things.
It is the story of how unreliable narrators in mysteries and thrillers, like The Girl on the Train, have taught him how to be more discerning in whom he trusts on social media:
And here’s one … thing I’ve learned from mysteries and thrillers: the only people you should never, ever trust are the people who say, “Trust me.”
He begins his new book with The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang. It is a book he returns to more often than any other in his life, and returns to often throughout the book. The first chapter, on the importance of “Slowing Down,” contains a surprising piece of advice for businesspeople:
Rather than rushing off for work every morning, believed Lin, those in business should spend an extra hour in bed, thinking, planning, reviewing, so that when they arrive at work they are masters of their own destiny and now slaves to their schedules.
But Books for Living is always more memoir than book report, describing not only what he has read, but the people who brought him to it or who he shared it with—and so many lessons he’s learned along the way. And those lessons are wonderfully digressive. So there is his dear friend David Baer, now departed, who liked most of the same things as him, but different things about them, with a lesson about how characters from books as well as our lives stay with us even when they’re gone. There is Miss Locke, the librarian at his boarding school, who must have realized he might be gay soon after he himself had admitted it to himself, and would leave books for him to find on a library cart. They were different from the books they talked about openly—it was the 1970s at an eastern boarding school—but he believed they’d been left behind just for him. And, while he never confirmed that fact, it’s where he discovered James Baldwin, who would have such a profound effect on the way he saw the world, and himself in it.
He discusses how Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, helped give him the tools he needed to lose a few pounds and keep them off (for two years as of his writing) after more than a decade of diet books failed to do the same. But that lesson is embedded in a chapter about R. J. Palacio’s children’s book, Wonder, and it’s encouragement to “act just a little kinder than necessary” toward each other—something he hopes we’re inclined toward, but that we still need to work on, just like our weight, even if it’s harder to measure the results.
The breadth of his reading and thought is beautiful and inspiring, even as it is simply imparted and clearly achievable. There is Edward De Bono’s Lateral Thinking giving him the idea to to introduce a piece of random input when mentally stuck—which he does most often, unsurprisingly, with a book. And there is Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift From the Sea reminding him of a lesson a senior editor gave him in his twenties. Usually warm and supportive toward him, she became stern after she asked how much time he would be taking for his summer vacation, and he told her he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to take one because of how busy he was.
She fixed me with an icy glare and then said: “I thought better of you. But you’re clearly either a megalomaniac or a fool.” She paused. “You’re a megalomaniac if you think we all can’t survive for a few weeks without your contributions. And you’re a fool if you think we can, but still insist on working through your vacation.
How that connects to Anne Morrow Lindbergh may seem tenuous at first, but that’s where the wonderfully digressive nature of the book comes in. Anne Morrow Lindbergh was a famous aviator and author. Even amidst great tragedy, deemed “the crime of the century” by the press at the time—the kidnapping and murder of her first son just five years after her husband’s famous, first transatlantic flight from New York to Paris—she was an extremely accomplished and productive woman. Her daughter, Reeve, who had always remembered her as small and delicate, had that illusion fall away upon rereading Gift from the Sea as an adult, when she was reminded:
She was the woman who raised five children after tragically losing her first son in 1932. She was the first woman in America to earn a first-class glider pilot’s license, in 1930, and the first woman ever to win the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal, in 1934, for her aviation and exploration adventures. She also received the National Book Award, in 1938, for Listen! the Wind, her novel based on those adventures, and she remained a best-selling author all her life.
Gift from the Sea, however, is a reminder to make time for solitude and one’s self, to choose simplicity over complication, to “choose whenever possible the unknown over the familiar,” but to not fill your life with too many things, people, or activities. It is a reminder that “it is not merely the trivial which clutters our lives but the important as well.” To Will Schwalbe, it is a reminder to take a summer vacation.
The chapter on “Nourishing” and The Taste of Country Cooking begins with the story of an Italian friend’s father’s diary, which he kept for thirty-five years and listed everything he ate and drank over that time, and with whom, and nothing else—which, when you think about it, is a pretty good way to measure your life. From there he segues into a brief mention of Soylent, a Silicon Valley company that manufactures shakes (or “open source meal replacements”) that allow you to get the nutrition you need without ever having to stop working, which brings us back, again, to Lin Yutang, who we began the book with and encounter often throughout:
Lin Yutang believed that nothing was more important than having meals with friends. In The Importance of Living, he writes, “It’s a pretty crazy life when one eats in order to work and does not work in order to eat.”
And yet, we know Yutang did amazing, world-changing work in literature, academics, and public service—as did other members of the Yutang family:
Lin Yutang’s wife and daughter believed the same; they devoted years of their lives to creating a book called Chinese Gastronomy, which helped introduce the world to real Chinese food.
Then comes an assist from Laurie Colwin, author of Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, who reminds us that:
“We live in an age of convenience foods and household appliances. We do not have to slaughter pigs, pluck chickens, or make soap or candles. We do not hand-wash clothes. Machines often wash our dishes for us—and still everyone complains they hardly have any time.”
All while “many of our fellow citizens are going hungry in the streets of our richest cities” which she finds impossible not to think about while writing a book about food. And this all brings us, finally, to Edna Lewis and The Taste of Country Cooking, which Will describes as “as much a poetic memoir as it is a cookbook.” It teaches us not only recipes, but also about a way of life. It is a way of life that contains a lot of hard work, but also idyllic pleasures—and the idea that hard work, in fact, allowed them those pleasures. “Miss Lewis,” Schwalbe tells us “was as radical as she was traditional.” Freetown, Virginia, she reminds us ,was a world “created by people who grew up enslaved.” They did not take those pleasures for granted.
A cookbook can do far more than give recipes for tasty dishes: it can introduce us to new places, help us celebrate life, comfort us in loss, and show us how to live. A cookbook can even remind us of America’s original sin, which is manifest in the countless inequities that exist to this day, and inspire us to listen more carefully to one another and do more to fix our world.
It is also an example of how to enjoy life in its simplest and richest pleasures, to be thankful for what we have, what we’ve worked for, the people and food we sit down with at the end of the day. The book is also the result of a lot of work, of a personal journey to preserve a piece of the author’s past she felt worth keeping—a preservation of something vital to the lives and culture of a community of people tasting freedom for the first time. I have to think Soylent sipped over a keyboard tastes much different.
And that brings me back to a lesson from the chapter on Wonder and kindness, an idea again pulled from Yutang that Schwalbe gives us with the words:
It takes discipline to try to relax and enjoy life a bit more.
That is the quote I will leave this year with, and a thought I will try to hold close in the new year.