‘All my life, when I’ve needed the answer to a question, I’ve turned to books’
Will Schwalbe is the author of the bestselling memoir The End of Your Life Book Club and Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better, co-written with David Shipley. A journalist whose work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, he’s also the founder and former CEO of Cookstr.com. His latest, Books for Living, an investigation into why we read, was recently published by Knopf.
Why did you write your new book?
All my life, when I’ve needed the answer to a question, I’ve turned to books. So I wanted to write a book to show some of the ways that books have helped me when I needed them most, to share specific titles that I have found particularly meaningful, and to explore the way that all different kinds of books – classic works of literature, thrillers, children’s books, even cookbooks – can help us live more fully in a world increasingly ruled by impatience and distraction.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
The single best piece of advice I’ve ever received is a bit of wisdom from British essayist G.K. Chesterton, which came to me when I was a teen by way of my father. Chesterton, in a 1910 treatise called What’s Wrong With the World, wrote: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” Sure, a worthwhile thing may be more worth doing if you can do it well. But it’s still worth doing even if you can only do it badly. Some of the things I enjoy I do badly – singing, for one – and probably always will. But I’m more than fine with that.
What’s your favourite word to use in a sentence?
My favourite word to use when I write is the conjunction “and.” It’s a wonderfully greedy word that I associate with delicious treats. I used to live directly above a great delicatessen, so I found myself there whenever I was hungry. After I had covered the checkout counter with food – sandwiches, pickles, slaw, chips, tubs of herring – the deli owner would always say to me one magical word posed as a question: “And …?” And I would always find one more thing I wanted, usually a piece of cheesecake that I had been trying to resist. It’s the same when I’m writing. No matter how much I’ve crammed into a sentence or paragraph or page, I always ask myself that same one-word question. The word “and” allows me to contemplate adding one more thing. But I do have some self-control: If the passage or page is already overstuffed, I’m usually capable of leaving it alone. My self-control is entirely lacking, however, in the presence of cheesecake.
What agreed-upon classic do you despise?
There’s a short story by O. Henry called The Gift of the Magi. It’s a Christmas classic. Della is a young woman whose prize possession is her gorgeous long hair; her husband, Jim, has a gold watch he treasures. Della sells her hair to buy Jim a watch chain she can’t otherwise afford; simultaneously, Jim sells his watch to buy his Della some expensive tortoiseshell hair- combs. But as O. Henry has Della herself point out: her hair will grow back. Obviously, Jim’s watch won’t. So it’s both annoying and unfair.
What fictional character do you wish you’d created?
I would give my eyeteeth to have created a single character in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. When I was in my late 30s, I came down with a severe case of adult chickenpox, which kept me bedridden for a month. During the worst days of my illness, when I was covered from head to toe in pox, and itching desperately, and unable to sleep, and feeling very sorry for myself, I read A Fine Balance. And, page by page, my pox became more bearable. I cared so much about Mistry’s characters and felt their immense suffering so deeply that I was able for hours at a time to forget about my own temporary misery. The chickenpox are long gone; Mistry’s characters are with me for life.