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The Books that You Leave Behind Tell Their Own Story

Will Schwalbe had an old friend, who like himself, was a voracious collector of books, amassing thousands of volumes. Around the age of 70, this friend made a decision to keep exactly 100 titles in his possession — if he bought a new book, he would give away or donate another one off his shelves.

When he died a decade later, he left a quirky collection, one that Schwalbe describes as a remarkable portrait of a man who enjoyed travel, photography and martini culture. “I love that idea that you can compose your autobiography not in words or sentences but in the books you chose to keep around and leave behind,” says Schwalbe.

It is also fair to say that as a longtime New York publishing executive, Schwalbe, who is speaking at Toronto’s Bluma Appel Salon on January 10, has built his own life story with words on pages. As his mother was going through chemotherapy sessions, the two avid readers would share books to pass the time.

Their discussions became the basis of his 2012 best-selling memoir The End of Your Life Book Club. Schwalbe’s new title, Books for Living, chronicles 26 titles that have a personal meaning or connection to various times in his life. Written in an informally chatty style, Schwalbe didn’t intend to produce a definite list of the greatest books ever published, or even a collection of his favourite reads.

“These are 26 wonderful books that came to me at a time when I needed them and I think have something that will move, delight, instruct others,” he says. “I hope at the end of this, I will have added to everyone’s to-read pile by a little bit, but also to look differently at the ways that books have impacted their lives.”

The list is as eclectic and unexpected as the stories behind them. Reading Homer’s The Odyssey under the tutelage of a demanding classics teacher showed Schwalbe that sometimes being mediocre is okay, and should even be embraced.

Stuart Little, E.B. White’s beloved children’s book about a nattily attired boy-mouse, is a reminder to be as cheerful and optimistic as possible (and to “dress smartly.”) Even Paula Hawkins’ blockbuster thriller The Girl on the Train taught Schwalbe lessons about trust.

“I think there are wonderful things to be had from all sorts of different books,” he says. “Some of the greatest experiences I’ve had have been with what people refer to as genre books. Pieces of wisdom from Jack Reacher novels have been as meaningful as gems I’ve found in the world’s great poetry.”

Like The End of Your Life Book Club, Books for Living also serves as a tribute to Schwalbe’s loved ones, in particular his essay on Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, which he transforms into an emotional tribute to an old friend who died suddenly.

A bittersweet piece about Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca is full of regret over how Schwalbe treated another friend, a former East Village party fixture who died alone.

“One of the themes that I love grappling with and has been very important to me is what can we do for the dead,” Schwalbe says. “We can read for them. We can read books that they loved, and books we think they would have loved. That’s really a way of keeping them present in our lives.”

Sue Carter is the editor at Quill & Quire magazine.

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