As President Obama prepares to leave the White House, he recently shared the one influential habit that carried him through the past eight years. In an interview published last weekend with New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, the president credited his insatiable reading of novels and nonfiction books with allowing him “to slow down and get perspective” and “get in somebody else’s shoes.”
This transformative power of reading is the central theme that runs through Will Schwalbe’s new book “Books for Living,” which examines 26 titles and the lessons they can teach us.
For the latest in our Inspiring Reads series, Schwalbe, a former editor in chief at William Morrow publishing and Hyperion books, shows us how we, too, can guide our lives through books. He shares one title every American should read right now during this period of political division and transition.
Q: Where did you get the idea for a book about books that can guide you through life?
WS: Many books have affected my own life, each in vastly different ways. I wrote this book to show how almost any book can help you or change you. “The Girl on the Train,” for example, can teach us about trust, while “The Odyssey” can teach us about mediocrity, and “Stuart Little” can show us how the quest is often more valuable than the goal.
Each of the 26 books I’ve included in this volume has taught me something about myself or about the world. They have the potential to do the same for others. Throughout the book, I give concrete examples of how these books have guided me in my life, and this way I show how any book can enrich a person’s life. I encourage readers to cast their mind over the books they’ve read in their lives that have had a profound impact on them and seek out new volumes that might help them in the future.
The one type of book I didn’t include was self-help. I feel like finding the right self-help book isn’t hard. What’s more interesting is exploring how any book can be a self-help book. In fact, books like “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou are the ultimate self-help books, because they’ve actually saved people’s lives. What’s more self-help than a book that shows you that you’re not alone?
Q: Your book isn’t only a love letter to books, it’s also about the power of reading. What does reading mean to you?
WS: Reading means many things, depending on the book. The chapter where I write specifically about reading, for example, is about the book called “Zen in the Art of Archery” by the German writer Eugen Herrigel. This book showed me that reading is a form of meditation.
Reading is also one of the few things you can do by yourself that makes you feel less alone. You feel more connected to others.
Reading also imbues you with a sense of responsibility: When we read, we figure out what we want to do in the world. It is also an act of long-form listening and can be an act of resistance. It is really the most remarkable thing.
Q: How does reading books help us engage with the world? How is it resistance?
WS: Reading books, especially novels, memoirs, and narrative nonfiction, help to exercise our emotional muscles. There have been studies that show readers tend to be more empathetic than non-readers.
Reading books can also help us examine our own prejudices. When we’re constantly commenting, liking or adding our two cents online, it’s really important to also be quiet and really listen. Reading a book is an opportunity for radical listening. You can argue with a book; you can chuck it across the room; you can denounce it, you can have an opinion, but you cannot change the words on the page. Reading requires you to “listen” to someone else.
At this time in global history, engaging with others and listening to their ideas is an important practice.
Q: There’s a question you believe people should get in the habit of asking: “What are you reading?” Can you talk about why we should be asking this question and what we might learn when we do?
WS: All books change us. We are all a little different at the end of a book than we were at the start. When you ask someone what they are reading or when they ask you the same question, what follows is a chance for conversation and for learning who they are and how they’ve changed. It’s a chance to find out if you have something in common with them or if they can bring something new to your life.
As you’re reading, it’s also fascinating to ask yourself these questions: How is this book changing me? Is it making me more aware of things I wasn’t aware of before? Is this book making me kinder or more outraged?
Q: So, what are you reading right now?
WS: I’m five pages away from finishing a book called “The Golden Age” by Joan London, a novel by an Australian writer. It’s a really special book. The characters are a boy and a girl, both 13 years old, and they are falling in love in a polio hospital. The boy and his family are refugees from Nazi Europe. They are immigrants, new to Australia, and they’re trying to fit in when the kid gets hit with polio. It’s this incredible love story set in a very unlikely place.
Q: How can people use your book to create their own guide through life?
WS: I hope people will follow my journey in books, and if one book or author that I write about catches their interest, then I hope they’ll explore it. These are my book recommendations and, since books lead to books, I hope they’ll serve as a jumping-off point for others as they create their own list.
But I would suggest picking 26 books — that comes out to reading one book every two weeks — if you alternate short books and long books, it makes for a nice year of reading.
Q: Going into inauguration weekend, Americans are feeling anxious and uncertain or elated. If you could assign a book for everyone in the country to read, which would you choose?
WS: Aside from the U.S. Constitution, which we should all read, I would have us read novels, or narrative nonfiction or memoirs, about people whose lives and experiences are vastly different from our own.
But if I could choose one novel for the entire country to read, it would be the book “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio, which I write about in my book. “Wonder” is the story of a boy with a facial deformity who is starting school for the first time. It charts his experiences from his point of view and through the points of view of the other characters. The lesson from this book is that we should always choose to be more kind than is necessary. It isn’t just that we should choose kindness, but we should be more kind than we have to be.
There are a lot of people right now who are not exhibiting kindness, and that alarms me. Bad things happen when the powerful forget to be kind. And it alarms me that our next president is not a reader. Our elected officials should be required to read; we should assign them novels and then test them on their contents.
Read more from our Inspiring Reads series: