When Knopf announced that Will Schwalbe, author of the bestselling The End of Your Life Book Club, founder of Cookstr.com, and executive v-p for editorial development and content innovation at Macmillan, had a new work on the power of books, Books for Living, dozens of booksellers sent in requests for appearances.
Rather than narrow them down to three or four, Schwalbe told his publisher that he wanted to do all of them. That is how he ended up on a 38-bookstore and library tour, which began January 5 at Barnes & Noble in Union Square, New York City, and ends on March 24 at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham, N.C.
According to Schwalbe, he told Knopf, “If a store wants me to come, why wouldn’t I?. I travel pretty cheaply, and I really want to do this. And if you run out of money, I’ll do it on my own nickel.” That hadn’t happened when PW caught up with Schwalbe on the second week of his tour at Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Mass., which opened specifically for this event. It had been closed for renovation that week.
One thing that makes a three-month tour work is that Schwalbe “loves” hotels and airports—and talking about books. Plus he’s able to do his job and read nearly a book a day on the road. Beyond that, he said, “I don’t think as an industry that we talk to people enough."
In some ways, talking with people when Schwalbe toured for The End of Your Life Book Club, is what led to his new book. “People kept asking me for lists,” he said. “It got me thinking about life and books. I wanted this book to be a kind of virtual experience of sharing. Also a theme that was very important to me was the role of reading in our lives and being more thoughtful in limiting our electronic time.”
To write Books for Living, Schwalbe did a first draft with what he remembered from each of the 26 books he chose, not necessarily his favorites. They range from classics like Lin Yutang’s once wildly popular The Importance of Living, which Schwalbe brought back into print when he was at William Morrow, to The Girl on a Train, which he included because it makes him feel sad when people apologized to him when he asked them what they were reading and they mentioned a thriller.
“I read for pleasure,” Schwalbe said. “I don’t take notes. Taking notes doesn’t allow your mind to decide what’s important. I really like my memory to do the sorting for me. I find I remember what I want to remember. Sometimes it’s only a sentence.”
In our talk and at his appearance, Schwalbe acknowledged another reason for the tour, “We live in crazy times. Yet to be in a bookstore surrounded by readers is really meaningful.” At Brookline Booksmith, it was clear that his words meant a lot to those who had come out on a drizzly evening. Many in the audience took notes and came looking for recommendations.
Do you read every book to the end?, asked one person. No, he skims if he stops liking it. When do you find time to read?, asked another. He sets his alarm a half hour ahead in the morning. If he reads at night, he falls asleep. How do you find books? “I like to stumble on them. I like the physical book,” said Schwalbe, who does about 20% of his reading electronically. He believes that if you knock over a book in a bookstore, you have to buy it; it’s the universe reaching out to you.
As for a favorite book that he’s read on tour, Schwalbe shared the name of a novel that a bookseller at his neighborhood bookstore, Three Lives in New York City, placed in his hand when he left for the tour, Joan London’s The Golden Age.