BOOK REVIEW: Books for Living: A Reader’s Guide to Life

by Will Schwable

Reading is one of the few things you can do alone that can make you feel less alone.”

BFL CoverWill Schwalbe thinks “fifty-plus is a good age for big questions,” and believes with a passion that many of the answers can be found in books. He was 54 when writing this literary self-help manual cum reading memoir, and the myriad answers he proffers to the eternal refrain: “Why is it that we read?” are engaging, humorous and frequently moving.

His idiosyncratic selection of literary works can sometimes seem bizarre, but make sense if you permit him to guide you to the relevant text. He is both bibliophile and deep thinker, having read intensely and widely throughout his life, enabling him to make perceptive observations on all manner of topics ranging from problem solving and embracing mediocrity to finding friends and overcoming boredom.

He reminisces about his school days; teachers who significantly influenced him; Miss Locke – the empathetic librarian; important friendships; momentous decisions; and growing up gay in a period far less accepting than our own. But his most affecting and powerful writing flows when exploring loss: in particular, the devastating loss of innumerable young lives (including many of Schwable’s closest friends) to AIDS.

Every stage of Will’s life reminds him of a book he was reading at the time, much as some people associate a particular song with a moment of great sadness or euphoria. His choices swing wildly from David Copperfield to The Cake Bible via Plutarch’s Lives and Stuart Little. He takes comfort from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince and learns valuable lessons from Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living (no, me neither). I couldn’t begin to predict whereabouts his reading tastes would next lead but found his literary odyssey a bracing experience.

Books for Living should ideally be read at a crunch point in life, when it is necessary to examine all options before making a decision. Perhaps by reading some of Schwable’s suggested titles in addition to those discovered by yourself, a shrewd conclusion will be reached.

The more we read, the better at reading we become. At the end of each page I’m a better reader than I was at the start.”

Many thanks to Two Roads for providing an advance review copy of this title.

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23 replies

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful review. A friend just gave me this book and I am looking forward to reading it.

  2. Wow, what a beautiful review, Paula. I am definitely interested in this book, and I think I have one of his other titles here.

  3. That does sound interesting, I do like books about books, as do many of us.

  4. This has been on my shelves for a while – I’m glad to know it’s an interesting read, and I love the eclectic nature of the books he writes about.

  5. Excellent review, Paula. This sounds like a deeply reflective read.

  6. Reading is more than just a metaphor for living, I’m convinced, and your review sort of suggests it. Not being a professional reviewer I get to choose what author or genre I’m in the mood for: the book chosen is thus not only often a consolation but I’ve found sometimes even a parallel commentary on thoughts and reactions I have in relation to the real world. I agree, books are a guide to life, and the more the merrier.

    • Thanks, Chris. Well, I’m definitely no expert, but there are times when I’m startled by a sentence because, for instance, it describes so well the way I’m feeling or perhaps a previous reaction I’ve had to an experience. I also believe books are capable of bringing humans closer, in a positive way, if we will only allow them.

  7. Sounds good. Seems there’s a surge of ‘reading memoirs’ at the moment…

  8. I appreciate your concise review, Paula. It sounds like there are a lot of great elements in Schwable’s memoir. I haven’t heard of this before, but I’m definitely intrigued. Do you feel like this book is more memoir or self-help? Regardless, did you find the self-help aspects insightful?

    • Thanks Jackie. It’s certainly not your usual self-help manual – I would have lost interest fairly rapidly if it had been at all preachy. It is definitely more memoir, be it one focusing on the books in a person’s life and what they meant to him at a particular time. Yes, it was insightful. It also gave me an idea for a forthcoming feature on this blog!

  9. I do love books about books – and this sounds wonderful rambling and eclectic, which is right up my street! 🙂


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