Will Schwalbe is a true literature lover if ever there was one. Books for Living, his latest, offers the reader a list of life-changing books. We caught up with Schwalbe this April at the Newburyport Literary Festival to talk about some of the titles he chose to feature, the necessity of letting people love the books they love, and, most importantly, to hear his surefire suggestions for how to get a reluctant reader to pick up a book.
Bookish: Let’s start off with your favorite question. What are you reading?
Will Schwalbe: At the moment, I’m reading Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, which is a marvelous literary novel that starts in Korea with a young woman who marries a Christian minister. Where I left off, they are heading off to Osaka, and I’m so excited to get back to it. It’s really tremendous.
I’ve read some wonderful books recently. I’ve loved Hourglass by Dani Shapiro. It’s a memoir of her marriage and it is the most frank memoir of an ongoing marriage that I’ve ever read. Another I finished recently was Setting Free the Kites by Alex George, which is set in Maine. It’s about the friendship of two boys. It’s a very original voice but in some ways reminded me of John Irving.
Bookish: The life-changing titles you list within Books for Living are diverse in terms of genre and publication date. Are there any you regret not including?
WS: I’m a big overwriter. It’s quite a slender volume, and I cut dozens of books and have tons of regrets. I would’ve loved to have written about Stoner by John Edward Williams, Chike and the River by Chinua Achebe, and Night by Elie Wiesel. I wrote chapters about all of these and more. I wrote about Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. But I had to whittle it down to these 26. I wanted 26 because, if someone chose to do so, I wanted to make it a year of reading—a book every two weeks for a year.
I had certain themes and genres that I wanted to cover because I really wanted to show that there are great things we learn from all different kinds of books. There are young adult, middle grade, and picture books. There are classics like The Odyssey. There are thrillers like The Girl on the Train and cookbooks like The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis. Everywhere I go I talk to people about the books that shaped their lives, and it’s such a wonderfully diverse group of titles. I wanted to reflect that. I didn’t want it to be a list of titles that had been anointed great books. I think a great book is a book that is great for you.
Bookish: E.B. White’s Stuart Little was one of your choices. Are there other authors who are considered to write primarily for children that you would suggest adults seek out?
WS: One of the middle grade books I loved writing about was R. J. Palacio’s Wonder. It’s the story of a boy with a facial deformity who is going to school for the first time. It has the most marvelous message, which is not just to choose kindness but choose to be more kind than necessary. I don’t know anybody who couldn’t gain from reading this. The characters are vivid, and it’s a wonderful, surprising story. A book for everybody.
I also have a chapter about a picture book, More, More, More, Said the Baby by Vera Williams. Picture books are so delightful for readers of all ages. If you revisit them as an adult when you’re not reading them to a child, you see the artistry that goes into the text and images. The great ones are really works of art.
Bookish: What is it about certain books that make people connect to them so intimately that they feel the compulsion to have others share that reading experience with them?
WS: There are two kinds of people in the world. One I call publishers and the other I call privaters. Publishers just want everyone to share their enthusiasm. Privaters like to keep their enthusiasms to themselves. If you are by nature a publisher, whether it’s a book, a movie, a food you had at a restaurant, or a part of the country, you want to share. Even among publishers, there are certain books that just demand to be shared. Those are the ones where you really want to talk about them with your friends. It’s not just that you want your friends to read them, but you want to talk about them.
For example, I write about A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It’s an extraordinary read. It’s very powerful, and in many ways very upsetting. It’s one of the most beautiful books about friendship that I’ve ever read. So you want your friends to read it because it gives you such a powerful lens into friendship and a kind of language for discussing friendship. Some books speak very quietly to your soul, but some demand that you share them.
Bookish: Is it possible to love someone who doesn’t love your favorite book?
WS: Oh, yes, absolutely. I am a big believer that people absorb information in all different ways. Some people are auditory and music is their life. Some people are really primarily visual and can spend endless hours in art museums and love movies. Some people like stories and some don’t, some like to read and some don’t. I love book people. I’m delighted to find them. They are my tribe. I love to share books. Yet some of my favorite people not only haven’t read my favorites, they don’t really read at all, and that’s fine. I never want books to feel like a cudgel that you’ve got to beat people with for either not sharing your opinion or for not reading. That’s not the intent.
Bookish: Do you have any books that you loved when you were younger and went back to read when you were older and they didn’t hold up? Or maybe you loved the book for a different reason when reading it again?
WS: There are books that I had the most marvelous experience with. I don’t know if they would hold up, and so I’m not going to test it. I loved Alistair Maclean, who wrote these incredibly, hairy-chested adventure stories: Guns of Navarone, Force 10 from Navarone, and Where Eagles Dare. They probably do hold up, but I have such incredibly vivid memories of devouring them that I don’t even want to reread them. I like those memories pure. If there was a book that I loved and I started to reread it and it wasn’t holding up, I would simply put it away. If I loved it, I don’t want to mess with that. Nor do I really want anyone else’s opinions of it. If I loved it and you didn’t, that’s great. Good for you. I don’t care. You’re not going to convince me to love it less.
On the flip side, there are books that really reveal themselves to you over time. That for me is especially true of reading poetry. There are poems that I’ve loved all my life. When I go back and read them, I love them more and more every time. There are also books where you know you’re going to love them, but it’s not the right time in your life for them. Everyone has always told me that I’ll love Anthony Trollope. I’m sure I will love Trollope but not yet.
Bookish: Do you have any tips for getting younger reluctant readers to pick up a book?
WS: Nothing made me read a book faster than my parents discouraging me from reading it. Fear of Flying came out, and they said, “This is too old for you.” So I thought, I’m reading it. Parents often ask me what to do if their child doesn’t like to read, and I’ll recommend that they buy a certain book, and I offer to write their child’s name in it and under that I write, “This is a book of which your parents won’t approve.”
Bookish: The End of Your Life Book Club touches me deeply for many reasons, but primarily because I am a mother who shares a love of reading with her son. What is a book you think that is perfect for a parent and child to read together?
WS: There are so many extraordinary books for a parent and child to read together. It’s really the experience of talking about it with the parent that is so special. I used to think books were the greatest gift you could ever give anyone, but I don’t think that anymore. I now think they are the second greatest gift, because the greatest gift is the conversation you have about a book that you love. I also think that there’s something extraordinary about parents who are reading what their children want them to read. There’s something really powerful about parents who follow their child’s instinct and interests and passions. Sometimes parents present their favorite books from their childhood to children, and it just may not speak to that child. Reading the the books that your kids love is a great thing.
I tell the story of a grandmother who was sad because she used to have these great conversations with her grandson and they became monosyllabic. At some point she asked him what he was reading, and he said The Hunger Games. So she read The Hunger Games, and then they had something to talk about. The amazing thing about The Hunger Games is, before you know it, you’re talking about the role of media in society, about war, about income inequality. There are some books out now that are amazingly powerful and that can give way to some important conversations. The Hate U Give is one that families should read together. Every family should read that book together. There is so much to talk about there, and it’s a marvelous book.
Now more than ever, we need to read. We need to read really diverse voices which are very different from our own experience, whatever that is and whoever we are. We should seek out writing by people who are very much unlike us and challenge our preconceptions.
Will Schwalbe has worked in publishing; digital media, as the founder and CEO of Cookstr.com; and as a journalist, writing for various publications, including The New York Times and the South China Morning Post. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller The End of Your Life Book Club and coauthor, with David Shipley, of Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better.