‘All my life, when I’ve needed the an­swer to a ques­tion, I’ve turned to books’

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - BOOKS - WILL SCH­WALBE

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.

JOSEF ASTOR

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