From time to time I have a terrifying dream. I call it the Reader’s Nightmare.
I’m in a busy airport, and they’ve announced my flight. There is an epic walk to the gate, and I know I have only a few minutes before they will close the door to the jetway and my plane will leave without me. Suddenly, I realize that I don’t have a book to read on the flight. Not one single book. I spin around, my eyes searching frantically for a bookstore. I see none. I run through the airport, past the duty-free counters selling liquor and perfume, past the luggage stores and fashion boutiques, past the place that offers neck massage. Still, I can’t find an airport bookstore. Now, over the loudspeakers, comes the final call for my flight. “Flight ninety-seven to Perth is ready for departure. All passengers must be on board at this time.” They even call me by name. Panic sets in as I realize that I am almost certainly going to miss my flight. But the idea of hours on a plane without a book? Intolerable. So I run and run, searching for that bookstore—or at least a newsstand with a rack of paperbacks. I can’t find a single book anywhere in the airport. I start to scream.
Then I wake up.
I don’t have this dream about food or television or movies or music. My unconscious is largely untroubled by the idea of spending hours in a metal tube hurtling through the sky without something to eat or a program to watch or tunes in my ears. It’s the thought of being bookless for hours that jolts me awake in a cold sweat.
Throughout my life I’ve looked to books for all sorts of reasons: to comfort me, to amuse me, to distract me, and to educate me. But just because you know that you can find anything you need in a book doesn’t mean you can easily find your way to the right book at the right time, the one that tells you what you need to know or feel when you need to know or feel it.
A few years ago, I wrote a book about the books I read with my mother when she was dying of pancreatic cancer. During this time we read casually, promiscuously, and whimsically, allowing one book to lead us to the next. We read books we were given and books that had sat on our shelves for decades, waiting to be noticed; books we had stumbled across, and books we had chosen to reread simply because we felt like it. Were we looking for anything in particular? Usually not. At times, the books gave us something to talk about when we wanted to talk about anything rather than her illness. But they also gave us a way to talk about subjects that were too painful to address directly. They helped guide and prompt our conversations, so that I could learn as much as I could from my mother while she was still here to teach me.
At other times throughout my life, though, I’ve felt a very specific need and have searched for a book to answer it. It hasn’t always been easy to find the right book. Sure, when that burning need was to learn how to make a pineapple upside-down cake, I turned to The Cake Bible.
Or when it was a need to find a place to eat in Chicago, the Zagat
guide. Or when I wanted to self-diagnose that angry rash, to the Mayo Clinic Family Health Book.
More and more, when I need this kind of information, my first line of attack isn’t a book at all—it’s the Internet, or social media, where I quiz the ubiquitous “hive mind” to find, say, good Malaysian food near Union Square.
There are, however, questions that the Internet and the hive mind are spectacularly unable to answer to my satisfaction. These are the big ones, the ones that writers have been tackling for thousands of years: the problem of pain, meaning, purpose, happiness. Questions about how to live your life. Yes, the Internet tries to help—inasmuch as any inanimate thing can be said to try to do anything. There are digital video channels devoted to streaming inspirational speeches from conferences in which people package insight into brief uplifting lectures—many with a compelling hook and some memorable stories. But the best of these are often simply digests of— or advertisements for—a book that the presenter has written or is currently working on. Authors have always given lectures: there’s nothing new in that. And readers, after hearing such speeches, have craved the books that go with them, so that they could explore the topics in greater depth and engage with them more fully—working through the arguments at their own pace, skipping, savoring, and pondering.
Unlike most of these inspirational speeches, even the best of which tend to be largely self-referential, most good books are not tackling big questions in isolation. Great authors have been engaged in a dialogue with one another that stretches back for millennia. People who write books generally read books, and most books carry with them traces of some of the hundreds or thousands of books the writer read before attempting the one at hand.
And that’s also why books can echo for centuries into the future. Even a book read by only a dozen people can have a massive effect if one of those readers goes on to write a book read by millions. British writer Henry Green (real name: Henry Vincent Yorke) never sold more than a few thousand copies of any of his novels, and most of his books sold far fewer than that. But the writers influenced by Green include Sebastian Faulks (whose Birdsong
is one of the bestselling and most beloved British novels of all time), Eudora Welty, and Anthony Burgess (best known for A Clockwork Orange,
which remains as shocking today as it was in 1962, when it was first published). John Updike wrote that Green’s novels made “more of a stylistic impact on me than those of any writer living or dead.”
Henry Green died at age sixty-eight in 1973 and is largely forgotten. The books he influenced continue to be read and themselves inspire new works.
Sometimes books wear their influences loudly, mention- ing other books by name, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Sometimes the lineage is subtler, and the careful reader must tease out or guess at the influences. (How much of J. K. Row- ling’s Harry Potter series was inspired by the classic 1857 boarding-school novel Tom Brown’s School Days,
by Thomas Hughes?) And sometimes authors hint at influences that aren’t really influences at all but instead speak to the kind of book the author would have liked
to have written.
Whenever I read, I try to be aware of these echoes and associations and aspirations. How did this book come to be? What books does this book resemble, and what books does it bring to mind?
Then, as the reader, I become influenced while I’m read- ing. I’m not the same reader when I finish a book as I was when I started. Brains are tangles of pathways, and reading creates new ones. Every book changes your life. So I like to ask: How is this book changing mine?
At the trial in which he would be sentenced to death, Socrates (as quoted by Plato) said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Reading is the best way I know to learn how to examine your life. By comparing what you’ve done to what others have done, and your thoughts and theories and feelings to those of others, you learn about yourself and the world around you. 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.
At fifty-four, I’m now roughly the same age Dante was when he was putting the finishing touches on The Divine Comedy.
I’m the same age as von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.
(I realized only recently that the character in this novella who was pining for a youth and his own lost youth was squarely in middle age; not having read the open- ing very carefully, I had always assumed that the “old” man who allowed the hotel barber to dye his hair jet black and garishly paint his face was in his seventies at the very least.) Fifty-plus is a good age for big questions. Unless I’m that rare soul who makes it past one hundred, I probably have less time ahead of me than I’ve already lived. Now that my brother, sister, and I are all over fifty, my brother, using a golf analogy, refers to our lives as being played on the back nine—the first nine holes are behind us. Whatever score we’ve accumulated, we carry with us. Suddenly, finishing honorably and staying out of the sand traps and water hazards matters more than seeing our names on the leaderboard.
On the other hand, I think any age is a good age for big questions. I asked some of my biggest and best when I was in high school and college—fittingly, as that’s what school is for. I asked other big questions at painful times in my life— no age is immune from misfortune or feels it less keenly. And I hope and expect to be asking big questions right up to the end.
I know I’m not alone in my hunger for books to help me find the right questions to ask, and find answers to the ones that I have. Because I work in publishing and wrote a book about reading, I meet a lot of readers. Readers of all ages have shared with me their desire for a list of books to help guide them. I’ve heard from people who want classic novels to read; others just how-to books; others a list of titles from around the world. But most don’t care what type of book or when it was written or by whom—they just want books that will help them find their way in the world and give them pleasure while they are at it.
On an endless and turbulent plane ride from New York to Las Vegas, I sat next to a nineteen-year-old West Point plebe. We started chatting, and he soon was telling me about some of his favorite books; The Alchemist
by Paulo Coelho was one. I told him I also loved that fable of the shepherd who travels to Egypt in search of treasure. Our conversation quickly moved from pleasantries to the meaning of life. (Maybe The Alchemist
prompted that; maybe it was because the turbulence was increasingly extreme.) As the plane bounced around the sky, I began to babble about other books that had inspired me. The cadet said he would trade me a genuine West Point baseball cap for a list of my favorite titles. I can’t remember most of what I wrote down. I love the cap; I hope he liked the books.
And then there’s my ninety-six-year-old friend Else, who is always ravenous for book recommendations. Recently, I told her about a book by Ruth Ozeki called A Tale for the Time Being.
In this novel from 2013, a writer in the Pacific Northwest finds washed up on shore various items, including the diary of a sixteen-year-old girl in Tokyo who is being horribly bullied and is quite sure she doesn’t want to go on living. The novel moves between the story of the writer, passages from the girl’s diary, and a collection of letters that accompanied it. The most indelible character in the book is the girl’s hundred-and-four-year-old grandmother, a quietly charismatic Zen Buddhist nun with a fascinating past, who provides physical and emotional sanctuary when life becomes too awful for the girl to bear alone.
Else also has enormous charisma, but of a more boisterous variety. (That is, she swears a lot.) And she too has lived a remarkable life: a teenage refugee from Nazi Germany, she became a music editor for film. Else read A Tale for the Time Being
with delight and had much to say about it. But more than anything she wanted to discuss the hundred-and-four-year-old Buddhist nun. Else hung on to her every word, and declared her one of the most astonishing characters she had ever encountered in fiction or nonfiction—or in real life, for that matter. “Now I know who I want to be when I grow up,” she announced to me gleefully, laughing and clapping her hands together.
As for me, I’m on a search—and have been, I now realize, all my life—to find books to help me make sense of the world, to help me become a better person, to help me get my head around the big questions that I have and answer some of the small ones while I’m at it.
I know that the West Point cadet, Else, and millions of others are on this search, too, a search that began long before I was born and that will continue long after I’m gone.
I’m not a particularly disciplined or systematic seeker. I don’t give a great deal of thought to the books I choose—I’ll read anything that catches my eye. Most of the time when I choose what I’m going to read it has absolutely nothing to do with improving myself. Especially when I’m at my happiest, I’m unlikely to search for a book to make me happier. But it’s often during these periods of nonseeking that I’ve stumbled across a book that has changed my life.
I believe that everything you need to know you can find in a book. People have always received life-guiding wisdom from certain types of nonfiction, often from “self-help” books starting with the progenitor of the category, Samuel Smiles’s 1859 bestseller Self-Help
(with illustrations of Character and Conduct
But I have found that all sorts of books can carry this kind of wisdom; a random sentence in a thriller will give me unexpected insight. (If I hadn’t read Killing Floor,
the masterful 1997 novel that introduced the world to Jack Reacher, a former military cop turned vagrant, I never would have learned this valuable piece of wisdom, which still guides me in work and life: “Waiting is a skill like anything else.”)
I also believe that there is no book so bad that you can’t find anything in it of interest. That, actually, is a paraphrase from the Roman lawyer Pliny the Younger, a sentiment later adopted by Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote.
Admittedly, neither Pliny nor Cervantes were subject to some of the weakest “sex and shopping” books from the 1980s, but I still think it mostly holds true. You can learn something from the very worst books—even if it is just how crass and base, or boring and petty, or cruel and intolerant, the human race can be. Or even if it’s just one gleaming insight in a muddy river of words.
There is a proud tradition of extracting lines from poetry and songs and using them in this way. And for centuries, people have kept “commonplace books”: journals filled with transcriptions of quotes and extracts. But not everyone is a fan of cherry-picking odd passages from random books and using them to direct your life. Some people argue that lines from novels and plays are dependent on the context that surrounds them—that it’s unseemly and self-serving to grab the odd line here and there, especially if it comes in the voice of a character and may not have anything to do with what the writer thinks. I don’t buy this. It ignores the way that your brain collects, refracts, sorts, and combines information. Our search for meaning isn’t limited to thoughts that were created to be meaningful and packaged in verse or easily extractable chunks. We can find meaning in everything—and everything is fair game. Your brain is, in fact, the ultimate commonplace collection, and everything you’ve ever read is in there somewhere, ready to come back into your consciousness when you want or need it.
So I spend my life collecting books and sentences from them: books I’ve sought alongside ones I’ve stumbled across, and sentences I’ve forced into my brain through rote memorization alongside ones that just found their way in by themselves.
At home, I’m a librarian, forever curating my collection.
Outside of my apartment, I’m a bookseller—hand-selling my favorite books to everyone I encounter.
There’s a name for someone who behaves the way I do: Reader.
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.
We overschedule our days and complain constantly about being too busy; we shop endlessly for stuff we don’t need and then feel oppressed by the clutter that surrounds us; we rarely sleep well or enough; we compare our bodies to the artificial ones we see in magazines and our lives to the exaggerated ones we see on television; we watch cooking shows and then eat fast food; we worry ourselves sick and join gyms we don’t visit; we keep up with hundreds of acquaintances but rarely see our best friends; we bombard ourselves with video clips and emails and instant messages; we even interrupt our interruptions.
When it comes time for us to decide what we should buy and how we should spend our free time, we expect ever more choice. And in order to try to make our way through all of the options we’ve created for ourselves, we’ve turned the whole world into an endless catalog of “picks and pans,” in which anything that isn’t deemed to be mind-blowing is regarded as useless. We no longer damn things with faint praise—we damn them with any praise that is less than ecstatic. Loving or loathing are the defaults—five stars or one.
And at the heart of it, for so many, is fear—fear that we are missing out on something. Wherever we are, there’s someone somewhere doing or seeing or eating or listening to something better.
I’m eager to escape from this way of living. And I think if enough of us escape this, the world will be better for it. Connectivity is one of the great blessings of the Internet era, and it makes extraordinary things possible. I have a world of information keystrokes away; I can buy and sell and trade and share online; and when I drive in a foreign place I have a knowledgeable voice to guide me and to “recalculate my route” when I’ve gone astray. It would be impossible to list all the ways our lives have been transformed.
But connectivity is one thing; constant
connectivity is another. I alert others when I am going to go “off the grid” for a few days or even, sometimes, for a couple of hours; the implication is that unless you are notified otherwise, you can assume I am always on it. Constant connectivity can be a curse, encouraging the lesser angels of our nature. None of the nine Muses of classical times bore the names Impatience or Distraction.
Books are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life in this world of endless connectivity. We can’t interrupt them; we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them. They are the expression of an individual or a group of individuals, not of a hive mind or collective consciousness. They speak to us, thoughtfully, one at a time. They demand our attention. And they demand that we briefly put aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s. You can rant against a book, scribble in the margin, or even chuck it out the win- dow. Still, you won’t change the words on the page.
The technology of a book is genius: the order of the words is fixed, whether on the page or on-screen, but the speed at which you read them is entirely up to you. Sure, this allows you to skip ahead and jump around. But it also allows you to slow down, savor, and ponder.
We all ask each other a lot of questions: “Where did you go for vacation?” “How did you sleep?” Or, my favorite, as I eye the last bites of chocolate cake on a friend’s dessert plate, “Are you going to finish that?” (A question memorably featured in the 1982 movie Diner.
) But there’s one question I think we should ask of one another a lot more often, and that’s “What are you reading?”
It’s a simple question but a powerful one, and it can change lives, creating a shared universe for people who are otherwise separated by culture and age and by time and space.
I remember a woman who told me that she was delighted to be a grandmother but was feeling sadly out of touch with her grandson. She lived in Florida. He and his parents lived elsewhere. She would call him and ask him about school or about his day. He would respond in one-word answers: Fine. Nothing. Nope.
And then one day she asked him what he was reading. And he had just started The Hunger Games,
a series of dystopian young adult novels by Suzanne Collins. The grandmother I met decided to read the first volume, so she could talk about it with her grandson the next time they chatted on the phone. She didn’t know what to expect, but found her- self hooked from the first pages when Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in the annual battle-to-the-death among a select group of teens.
The book helped this grandmother cut through the superficialities of phone chat and engage her grandson on the most important questions humans face about survival and destruction and loyalty and betrayal and good and evil, and about politics as well. And it helped her grandson engage with his grandmother on these same issues—not as a child in need of a lecture, but as a fellow seeker. It gave him a language for discussing issues that he was pondering, without having to explain exactly why these themes spoke to him.
When they talked about The Hunger Games,
they were no longer just grandmother and grandson: they were two readers embarked on a journey together. Now her grand- son couldn’t wait to talk to her when she called—to tell her where he was, to find out where she was, and to speculate about what would happen next. The Hunger Games
gave them inspiration for deeper discus- sions than they had ever had, and it provided them a wealth of prompts for their conversations. The book even led them to talk about topics that included economic inequality, war, privacy, and the media. As they continued reading and talking about other books, they discovered they had an ever-expanding common language: their “vocabulary” was made up of all the characters and actions and descriptions in all the books they’d read, and they could employ these to convey their thoughts and feelings.
Other than the accident of family, they had never had much in common. Now they did. The conduit was reading.
When we ask one another “What are you reading?” some- times we discover the ways that we are similar; sometimes the ways that we are different. Sometimes we discover things we never knew we shared; other times we open ourselves up to exploring new worlds and ideas. “What are you reading?” isn’t a simple question when asked with genuine curiosity; it’s really a way of asking, “Who are you now and who are you becoming?”
What follows are stories of books I’ve discovered that have helped me and others in ways big and small with some of the specific challenges of living in our modern world, with all its noise and distractions. Some are undoubtedly among the great works of our time. Others almost certainly are not. Many of the books I write about are books I first read when I was young. I’m not just a fifty-something-year-old reader; I’m the reader I was at every age I’ve ever been, with all the books I’ve ever read and all the experiences I’ve ever had constantly shifting and recombining in my brain. Often I remember exactly where I was when I first read a book that became important to me and also recall concurrent events, significant or not; other times I remember nothing else but how that book made me feel, and those same feelings come back whenever I think of that title.
Just as a Freudian psychiatrist might look to your child- hood to help you interpret your desires and motivations, so I feel we need to look to the books we read as children to help us understand why we read the way we do. But it’s not just childhood books that loom especially large in my life. Some- times the last book I’ve read is the most important book I’ve ever read—but only until the next
very important book I read. What is fresh initially can seem more profound; over time, though, my brain will discount newness in favor of resonance.
Some of these are not works I would list among my favorite books, but they are all books that I found (or that found me) when I needed them, or that prompted me to remember something, realize something, or see my life and the world differently. Every reader can construct a list like this; and that list may change from year to year or even week to week. Compiling and constantly revising this kind of book list is an exercise I highly recommend: it’s a path to creating your own practical philosophy.
Some people have one book that they turn to again and again, one book that has all the answers. Most commonly, it is a book central to a particular faith: perhaps the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, or the like. I’m skeptical about finding any one book that will give me the answer to every question I have. Instead, I’m more likely to look to all sorts of different books to help me answer a multitude of questions. I doubt I will ever find a single book that’s the literary equivalent of a Ginsu knife (that piece of cutlery catapulted to fame by an infomercial in my youth: it slices, it dices, it cuts cans and wood, and it never loses its edge). Both when cooking and reading, I enjoy a wide array of special tools and implements—whether I use them as intended or not. (A melon baller lends itself to all sorts of uses in addition to balling melons: making butter curls; apportioning cookie dough; separating artichoke flesh from choke.)
There’s a particular kind of hope I sometimes have when I start a book. It’s that maybe, just maybe—even though it goes against all my experience to date—I might be starting the one book that gives me all the answers I’ll ever need. It could happen. My Ginsu knife. My Holy Grail.
Perhaps it might even be the book I frantically grab, unsure if I’ll be interested or not, in the few seconds I have at an airport bookstore as I’m racing to the gate to board a flight.
I do believe that my Holy Grail of books could be out there—and I intend to keep reading until I find it. Of course, I’ll keep reading after I do, too, because—well, because I love to read. I also believe that the Holy Grail of books won’t be the greatest book ever written—I am certain there isn’t such a thing. I think it will simply be a book that speaks perfectly to me at the moment I most need it and continues to speak to me for the rest of my life.
No book has ever done that for me, but one has come close: The Importance of Living
by a scholar named Lin Yutang, a book about Chinese culture and the “noble art of leaving things undone.”
There is no book I turn to more often, which is why I begin this book with it and return to it again and again.
Copyright © 2016 by Will Schwalbe. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.