Words are key to the rhythm of Will Schwalbe’s existence. This book publisher and author has been in love with words his whole life.
“I’ve always been a bookworm,” says Schwalbe, who will speak at the Love of Literacy luncheon at the Kravis Center on March 9. He reads an average of two books a week and freely admits that the prospect of boarding a plane without a book is the stuff of occasional nightmares.
The native New Yorker who was raised in New England realized in high school he wanted a career in words. He got on the path when he worked as a secretary for the Kelly temp agency (no such thing as internships back then) and fell in love with the publishing industry and the process of making books.
He had always wanted to be a journalist, which he did after graduating from Yale, but realized he most wanted to work in publishing so he could be “part of the endeavor of bringing books to life.”
Schwalbe, 55, shot to the top of The New York Times best-seller list with his second book, which was an ode to and a celebration of his dying mother. In “The End of Your Life Book Club,” Schwalbe traces the days from Mary Anne Schwalbe’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer to her death, months longer than she initially had been given.
Their book club starts with them talking about books each was reading as a way to pass the time during her chemo visits but quickly morphs into suggestions about must-read books or some that simply should be read.
The pair read and discuss dozens of books, including Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture.” Schwalbe was with Hyperion, Pausch’s publishing house, at the time and gave his mom the manuscript. He second-guessed the decision but Mary Anne’s reaction of feeling thankful and lucky that she had seen her children grow up and met her grandchildren, things that Pausch never would, made him realize it was the right decision. Pausch was a professor of computer science and design at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2008.
Although “The End of Your Life Book Club” is a book about death and dying, many readers come away filled with hope for living. This pleases Schwalbe, who says “the book is about embracing life and living fully until the day you die. It’s about treasuring conversations.”
He says the essence of the book was “really led by my mother.”
She had a young friend who would burst into tears every time she came for a visit. As Schwalbe tells it, his mom told the friend to stop visiting if she couldn’t stop crying, because “I want to live up until the moment I die.”
It was during the course of his mother’s illness and with her encouragement that Schwalbe made the leap to start the website Cookstr.com. A site about cooking? Quite a leap, right? Not so, he says.
“I love food and eating and I love the way that cooking brings people together. When we cook meals and share them that’s where the great conversations take place, it’s also how we celebrate and transmit our cultures. For example, most great home cooks are also great storytellers and every dish has a story. Book clubs and food are a perfect match.” He eventually sold the website to Macmillan Publishers, where he now works.
His first book was “Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do it Better,” which he co-wrote with his friend, David Shipley, in 2010.
They decided to write the book because email “was this thing that went from being some weird thing that academic people did to taking over our lives.”
While “Send” offers guidance on how to behave in an email, Schwalbe is quick to point out that it’s also “a book about how we treat one another. In any electronic medium, we are less good versions of ourselves … we’re more gossipy, etc.”
Rule No. 1 for emails: “Never put anything in an email you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of The New York Times.”
They recently did a revised edition that says all the same rules apply to social media.
Speaking of technology, Schwalbe, who admits to being wedded to his phone like most of society, believes in taking a break for books because “reading is one of the few things you do alone that makes you feel less lonely.”
“While on the internet looking at whatever, you are reminded of everything that you don’t have and all the fun that everyone else is having that doesn’t include you. When you’re reading a book, you’re having an experience that anyone who is reading that book can share — books bring people together.”
For Schwalbe, who lives in New York with his husband, David Cheng, reading equals radical listening. Because you can’t change a book, you have to be quiet and listen — it’s a form of meditation. “All readers know this intuitively.”
Books also are linked to memories, he says.
“If you ask me what I was doing in the summer of 2000 and something, I might not be able to tell you, but if you ask what I was doing when I was reading ‘The Kite Runner,’ I can tell you.”
His secret to maintaining a steady diet of books? Set your alarm for an hour or half-hour before you wake up and read a book first thing in the morning.
What about audiobooks? Though Schwalbe admits he doesn’t listen to them often, he loves that they allow people to read books because, as far as he is concerned, the more people read, the better.
“The best audiobooks help you discover something in a book you didn’t know was there. I don’t read my own books, an actor does, and when I listen I hear things I didn’t know I put there,” says Schwalbe.
His most recent work, “Books for Living,” is a compilation of the books that have had an effect on his life. He starts with the rather obscure “Importance of Living” written in the 1930s by Lin Yutang. This book stresses the value of balance, including taking the time to nap, and still speaks to our times, says Schwalbe. The books are varied and include “Stuart Little” as well as “Giovanni’s Room” and “The Girl on the Train.”
While there are dozens of books he could have included, Schwalbe says his intent is to show that any book can change your life. “Every time I read a book I ask myself, ‘How has this book changed me?’ One of the reasons I love reading mysteries and suspense stories is they help you learn who you can trust.”
Schwalbe has taken the idea that books affect lives to the next level with a podcast that launched Feb. 22. Titled “But That’s Another Story,” he talks to people about the books that changed their lives. His first guest was Min Jin Lee, author of “Pachinko.” The book that changed her life? “Middlemarch.”
And what is Schwalbe reading? “I just finished an astonishing little book called ‘Mrs. Caliban’ by Rachel Ingalls. It was published in 1983 and The New Yorker called it a perfect novel.”
IF YOU GO
What: Love of Literacy Luncheon
Where: Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach
When: 11:30 a.m. March 9
Tickets: $150 for general seating
Information: Visit www.LiteracyPBC.org, or call 561-279-9103.