Reading is the best way I know to learn how to examine your life. By comparing what you’ve done to what others have done, and your thoughts and theories and feelings to those of others, you learn about yourself and the world around you. Perhaps that is why reading is one of the few things you do alone that can make you feel less alone. It is a solitary activity that connects you to others.
Will Schwalbe, Books for Living
“Attention Book-Lovers: Take the 2017 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge”; “Around the Year in 52 Books”; “11 Tips to Read More in 2017, Because 2017 Is the Year You Conquer Your TBR
List” . . .
Along with dieting, exercising, and generally becoming better people, we’re also supposed to revamp our reading lives this year. It’s not enough to read what we enjoy — we’re supposed to “read harder”, which apparently means reading a “superhero comic with a female lead” and an “LGBTQ+ romance novel”. We’re advised to schedule reading time, the same way we’re supposed to squeeze in workouts.
I appreciate the message behind the articles offering advice for readers. Making time for reading is important, and so is reading outside our comfort zones. Many of them have great ideas; the Miami Herald recently published a terrific story, 9 Ways to Read More Books in 2017, which suggests, among other things, putting down your phone, reading audiobooks, and abandoning books you don’t enjoy:
If a book doesn’t grab you, give up. I have been told my 25-page rule is too hasty, so let’s make it 50 pages. If a book hasn’t grabbed you 50 pages in, move along and feel no guilt. It’s the author’s responsibility to reel you in, not yours to finish something you don’t like. I’m still bitter about the time I wasted on Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch only to abandon it 200 pages in.
However, I don’t see how reading a book “with a red spine” or one with “a cat on the cover” will enrich my reading life, and I have mixed feelings about what some of these articles seem to imply. They unfortunately convey the impression that reading is just another activity for self-improvement, akin to running on the treadmill. Put in your hour a day with a book by an author “with a different ethnicity than you” and you will be a better reader and a better person. I never liked the reading logs my children were required to keep in grade school. The well-intentioned logs implied that reading was a dreary task that had to be documented, conflicting with my view that reading was a pleasurable activity very different from memorizing multiplication tables. Flashlight under the covers, anyone?
Some of the “reading challenges” online do include inspiring suggestions for readers looking to expand their reading horizons. I particularly like the list posted on The Modern Mrs. Darcy, Reading for Fun: Put the Oomph Back in Your Reading Life. This challenge includes my favorite kind of book — a “book about books or reading”.
Enter Will Schwalbe, who has written an entire book, Books for Living, about how books of all kinds can help us “engage with the world, become better people, and understand life’s questions, big and small”. Some of the books that have changed his life, he says, “are undoubtedly among the great works of our time. Others almost certainly are not.” No book is a waste of time according to Schwalbe: “There is no book so bad that you can’t find anything in it of interest . . even “just one gleaming insight in a muddy river of words.”
Books for Living contains 26 chapters, each focusing on a particular book that resonated with Schwalbe at a particular time in his life — and that continues to resonate with him. He discusses what led him to each book , the people in his life he associates with the book, and why it is important to him. The books range from children’s books (Stuart Little, Wonder) to classics (The Odyssey, David Copperfield) to contemporary fiction (A Little Life, The Girl on the Train).
How did he choose to read these books? Through trial and error, mostly:
I’m not a particularly disciplined or systematic seeker. I don’t give a great deal of thought to the books I choose—I’ll read anything that catches my eye. Most of the time, when I choose what I’m going to read, it has absolutely nothing to do with improving myself. Especially when I’m at my happiest, I’m unlikely to search for a book to make me happier. But it’s often during these periods of non-seeking that I’ve stumbled across a book that has changed my life.
I can’t imagine a better way to start your reading year than by picking up a copy of Books for Living. When I started the book, I began underlining. And underlining, and underlining — until I realized that I needed to stop, because I was underlining almost everything. (The first passage I underlined was in the first page of the introduction, when Schwalbe describes a terrifying recurring dream, in which he’s in an airport, about to miss his flight, when he realizes has nothing to read on the plane.)
Best wishes for a happy year of reading!
Schwalbe published an essay in the Wall Street Journal, The Need To Read, which is a wonderful distillation of Books for Living.