Such miniature exhibitions, whether motivated by economy or by intense scholarship, are among the great delights of today’s museum practices. Our attention is called to works of art in ways that add greatly to our knowledge, and deepen and intensify our experience. We are shown few enough works at a time that we can study them carefully and over long periods. It’s the exhibition equivalent of the Slow Food Movement.
Schwalbe’s new book is less narrative, more episodic. It consists of essays on 26 books that changed his life. Schwalbe chose an eclectic Cobb salad of volumes — fiction and nonfiction, old and new, famous and obscure — and he draws a lesson from each.
My favorite of Schwalbe’s essays are the ones that praise underappreciated values, those sometimes incorrectly categorized as vices. There’s an ode to loafing and lounging, inspired by the now-forgotten book “The Importance of Living,” by the Chinese scholar Lin Yutang. There’s a piece on how it’s O.K. to blow off your friends and stay at home, tied to Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s “Gift From the Sea.”
Rereading, I did not need to race through the book wondering what would happen next. Like many Jane Austen fans, I could recite some of the best lines by heart. This predictability was the perfect escape from a regime of keeping vigil at hospitals, the panic of awaiting test results, the ever-present taste of fear. With the outcome of the novel never in doubt, I could savor the language, satire and repartee, the cutting observations cloaked in seemingly innocuous remarks. Humor is a balm; I needed badly to smile, and Austen was irresistible.
A dose of aggression, too, seems essential for reading that’s done in search of solace. Anger and suffering, after all, go hand in hand. Austen may be celebrated as the quintessential novelist of manners, but her wit can be cruel and her portraits unsparing. There is a guilty pleasure in savoring the moments of mockery, since they usually puncture hypocrisy, obsequiousness or arrogance.