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Excerpt from Books for Living by Will Schwalbe, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Books for Living

by Will Schwalbe

Books for Living by Will Schwalbe X
Books for Living by Will Schwalbe
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2016, 288 pages

    Paperback:
    Sep 2017, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Bradley Sides
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About this Book

Print Excerpt

The Importance of Living
Slowing Down

Every now and then the universe tells you what book you need to read; it does this by placing the name of that book and author in front of you in various contexts, until you can't help but take note. You ignore book recommendations from the universe at your peril. So when I was in my thirties, after a decade of sporadically encountering the name Lin Yutang but still knowing nothing about him, I decided to investigate.

Starting in my teens, I had become obsessed with the writers of the 1930s, prompted initially by my fascination with the 1972 movie Cabaret and its boyishly handsome star, Michael York. Cabaret was based on two novellas by Christopher Isherwood, thinly fictionalizing his life in pre-­Nazi Berlin. I read everything I could by Isherwood and about Berlin and about that decade and its writers; and the more I read, the more I came across the name Lin Yutang, alongside mentions of his second book, The Importance of Living.

So, finally, when I was in my twenties, off to the library I went to learn more about Lin Yutang. This was all, of course, pre-­Internet.

I found out that The Importance of Living had been published by John Day publishers in 1937. Lin had become a friend of author Pearl Buck in Shanghai—­and she had helped arrange for his books to be published. Buck was by then one of the world's bestselling authors. Her novel The Good Earth, set in a Chinese village, had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, and she would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938. She was also married to the founder of John Day publishers. Pearl Buck introduced Lin to her husband, who promptly offered him a contract.

By the time I went to investigate, The Importance of Living had been out of print for decades. But my local library had a well-­worn copy ready for loan. It took some time to adjust to the chattiness of the book and its meandering digressions. When I first began to read it, it seemed charming but dated, a bit precious, verbose, contrarian for the sake of being contrarian, scattered, and peculiar. But soon I realized that beneath the chatter was profound wisdom and a radical rejection of the philosophy of ambition, which is so much a part of our culture.

The Importance of Living is a book that makes a case for loafing, for savoring food and drink, for not striving too much. Lin wanted an antidote to the raw competitiveness and frenetic activity he saw all around him in the early 1930s—­not just in China, where he had grown up, but also in France and Germany, where he had worked and studied, and in the United States, where he had briefly attended college as a young man and where he was living when he wrote this book. Lin was eager to give people a framework for enjoying life, and he built it using the wisdom of ancient Chinese literature as well as a large helping of common sense.

Lin's book quickly became a success of epic proportions in the 1930s—­one of those books read seemingly by everyone all over the world, translated into multiple languages, and one of the biggest bestsellers of its time.

Lin described his book as "a personal testimony, a testimony of my own experience of thought and life." He proudly proclaimed that he is not original and that the ideas he expresses "have been thought and expressed by many thinkers of the East and West over and over again." As for his methods, he wrote, "It is my habit to buy cheap editions of old, obscure books and see what I can discover there. If the professors of literature knew the sources of my ideas, they would be astounded at the Philistine. But there is a greater pleasure in picking up a small pearl in an ash-­can than in looking at a large one in a jeweler's window." It's a manifesto, but also a commonplace book, of sorts.

He made clear that he is not a philosopher nor well read in philosophy and that, "technically speaking," his method and training are totally wrong. As for the sources for his philosophy? He credits his "cook's wife; a lion cub in the zoo; a squirrel in Central Park in New York; a deck steward who made one good remark," among several others.

Excerpted from Books for Living by Will Schwalbe. 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.

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