The Hippo


May 31, 2020








Meet Will Schwalbe

Where: The Music Hall Loft, 131 Congress St., Portsmouth
When: Thursday, Jan. 19, at 7 p.m.
Admission: $40, includes reserved seat, book copy, book signing meet-and-greet, bar beverage
Contact: 436-2400,

Life’s short, go read a book
Will Schwalbe on Books for Living

By Kelly Sennott

 To author Will Schwalbe, it’s not at all dramatic to say books can save lives. 

“When you read broadly, and when you discover that author or character who speaks to you or knows your thoughts, it’s like you’re not alone, and that’s an incredible thing to discover,” Schwalbe said via phone last week. “And that really saves lives.”
Schwalbe has a whole list of titles that impacted his life — which is the premise of his most recent project, Books for Living.
The book, published in late December by Knopf Publishing Group, contains 26 essays about 26 books that helped Schwalbe make sense of the world. The idea for it started during the tour for his 2012 memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club, which told of the books he and his mother read together while she was dying. At these events, he talked about the memoir, but often conversations gravitated toward general reading — he asked what attendees were reading and vice versa.
“I started to see the way books changed their lives and helped them engage in life,” Schwalbe said. “I wanted to explain the phenomenon on why readers are so passionate about books.” 
Schwalbe began research by rereading 100 of the most memorable books he’s read, which helped him narrow the list down to 50. He wrote essays about each at his home bar, above which hangs a sign: Who cares? This helped him narrow the field to 26. 
“When I finished a chapter, that’s the question I asked myself. Sometimes I wrote a whole chapter and thought, ‘Not even I care!’ Even though this has a lot of memoir in it, I really tried to write about books that speak to readers in different ways. These are not my 26 favorite books. These are 26 books that I think teach powerful lessons,” he said. 
He talks about the book and some of those titles — which range from Stuart Little and The Odyssey to The Girl on the Train and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running — at The Music Hall Loft Thursday, Jan. 19, at 7 p.m. 
Schwalbe said he learned a lot rereading these books and remembering his experiences with them. 
“One thing I realized is that we’re not the same person when we read a book [a second time]. We’re not even the same person when we get to the end of a book. Funny little things would jump out at me,” he said. “Some of the books you read the first time don’t hit you until later.”
For instance, what struck him the second time reading What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami was a paragraph about naps. When he reread The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, it reminded him of a friend who died in high school. 
Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh taught him the importance of recharging; he compares it to Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, except that it’s about your soul instead of your home. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins has lessons about trust, he said. 
Readers will revel in a small taste of New Hampshire; some essays look back at Schwalbe’s time at St. Paul’s in Concord, which he attended as a teen. His chapter on The Odyssey by Homer offers a glimpse of one of his favorite teachers, George Tracy, who taught Greek, and his chapter on Giovanni’s Room is about Miss Locke, the school librarian who used to leave him books on the library cart. 
Schwalbe’s day job is in book publishing, mostly cookbooks, but he typically devours one to two additional books a week for pleasure. He hopes Books for Living inspires people to think about their own reading lives and come up with their own lists — or better yet, just spend more time with a book in hand.
“One of the big things in the book. … is to show how books can help reset our lives and priorities,” he said. “A lot of people are in this habit of checking email the minute they wake up. If you check email the minute you wake up, why not just wake up an hour earlier, stay in bed and read a book for an hour, then check emails and get on with your day?”
It’s different from doing something like running or writing first thing, he said.
“It’s hard to go running. It’s hard to write. A lot of things are hard to do in the morning. But picking up a book you’re enjoying — that’s not something that’s hard. Life’s short. Why not start the day with something fun?” he said. 

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