This book you are now reading is a manifesto of sorts–my manifesto, a manifesto for readers. Because I think we need to read and to be readers now more than ever.
Every January I struggle to decide what I want to read. Do I catch up on what I missed the previous year, or do I read classics I’ve missed? Should I focus on new, enticing books just coming out, or read some topical nonfiction I’ve been putting off? I spend much of the month picking up and putting things down, casting about for the book or author that speaks to my mood. 2017 has created its own special reading vacuum, what with the upheaval in these United States, so I was pleasantly surprised when the book that provided the most balm and sustenance for me right now was a book about reading books.
Perhaps that is why reading is one of the few things you do alone that can make you feel less alone; it’s a solitary activity that connects you to others.
Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living is a sequel to his previous The End of Your Life Book Club, a memoir in reading about the books he read and discussed with his mother as she was undergoing treatment for cancer. Schwalbe’s new memoir is more intimate, plumbing his personal reactions to solo reads. He tells about how a librarian who made sure he found James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room as a teenager helped him see a possible future as a gay man, discover the deep pleasures of sharing books and the art that was lost in the ravages of the AIDS era. But it was his insights into the power of reading that most captivated me.
In the first essay, Schwalbe meditates on a book that has been important and influential in his life and thinking, Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living. First published in 1937, Lin’s observations on taking life slower, learning how to savor moments such as lying quietly in bed speak to readers in today’s hyper-busy, smart-phone-happy culture. Schwalbe quotes Lin throughout the book; here is one passage:
Lin Yutang also believed that reading is an art. One chapter of The Importance of Living is devoted to The Art of Reading. Lin writes that “The man who has not the habit of reading is imprisoned in his immediate world, in respect to space and time. His life falls into a set routine; he is limited to contact and conversation with a few friends and acquaintances, and he sees only what happens in his immediate neighborhood.”
Reading connects us, creates empathy; it helps us see out of the confines of our lives. Reading helps us see beyond the dominant narratives.
Schwalbe is a voracious reader and is no snob, discussing contemporary thrillers like Girl on a Train and the children’s classic The Little Prince, as well as Dickens, Baldwin, Morrison and more. As a librarian, I feel that I can never read enough–so reading about books that others have read enlarges my understanding of the wider world of literature.
In his conclusion, his words on the importance of reading in times of social turmoil were especially stirring for me and I will let Schwalbe’s words speak for themselves:
When you read about injustice, you need to do something about it. Books have played a role in almost every one of the world’s great civil and human rights movements, but only because people who read them decided to act. Reading brings with it responsibility.
Books remain one of the strongest bulwarks we have against tyranny–but only so long as people are free to read all different kinds of books, and only so long as they actually do so. The right to read whatever you want and whenever you want is one of the fundamental rights that helps preserve all the other rights. It’s a right we need to guard with unwavering diligence. But it’s also a right we can guard with pleasure. Reading isn’t just a strike against narrowness, mind control, and domination; it’s one of the world’s great joys.
Read for enlightenment, resistance, resilience, and joy.
– posted by Misha