By AUDREY FISCHER
If not quite "the man almost killed by love of books" -- a San Diego man buried under 9,900 hardcover books in his 12-foot-square apartment during an earthquake -- Ronald Shwartz is a close second. Mr. Shwartz has put his life's blood into his new opus, For the Love of Books: 115 Celebrated Writers on the Books They Love Most.
"It is the work of a lifetime and a work that seemed to take a lifetime," he told a crowd of fellow book lovers attending the Sept. 29 "Books & Beyond" lecture series sponsored by the Library's Center for the Book. "I became, if not a man of letters, at least a man who writes letters," quipped Mr. Shwartz in reference to his method for eliciting a response to the question "Which books have affected you most deeply?" More than 3,600 letters, e-mails and faxes exchanged with hundreds of esteemed writers resulted in an eloquent compilation of their commentaries on literature and life.
The story of how Mr. Shwartz, a Boston trial attorney, came to write the book is an interesting tale in itself. He entered the legal profession thinking it to be "the refuge of choice for cerebral types with free-floating ambition but otherwise without calling" and hoping to "end up reading books for fun and profit en route to becoming a man of letters." These hopes were quickly dashed when he was at once presented with "4-pound texts with no cover designs, no dust jackets ... big books with little questions ... not the multicolored books that lit up the world's dark corners." According to Mr. Shwartz, "the message was clear: real books were something you put away like toys in order to grow up, get over it, to get with the program." After "three years in exile," he divided his time between practicing the law and once again reading for pleasure. "Bookstores were my weakness and ultimately my way back."
This time in exile from the legal profession on a leave of absence, Mr. Shwartz set about writing "the book I myself tried to find while spending half my waking life in bookstores." After establishing his credibility as the editor of The University of Chicago Law Review and three books of quotations and as a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times and other prominent publications, Mr. Shwartz set up a strategy for eliciting the participation of a critical mass of writers. Instead of distributing a form letter, he composed each letter individually, citing each author's works. He also took pains to choose what he hoped would be the right paper weight and texture, and even the optimum choice of font. Before long, he learned that "writers don't just write, they write back." The responses themselves are fodder for another book.
Many, like the playwright Neil Simon, who initially declined due to other commitments, eventually conceded. Some like Anna Quindlen and Kurt Vonnegut, who characterized the suggestion as a mean thing to ask a fellow writer to do, also capitulated. Aware that he was "treading a thin line between tenacity and harassment," Mr. Shwartz continued to engage in "benign hounding" until he achieved more than a critical mass of participants. An advance from an interested publisher soon followed his book proposal.
Of the 115 writers whose essays are included in the book, five have served as the nation's poet laureate in the Library of Congress. Four have since died, making their comments on the subject all the more poignant. Of these, Shwartz developed a special relationship with Clifton Fadiman, whose assistant initially wrote to decline for the 93-year-old writer, who was by then nearly blind. Mr. Fadiman's own signature, written in a shaky hand, was touching to Mr. Shwartz, who wrote to tell him so. This led to a phone correspondence in which Mr. Fadiman's comments on literature were eventually transcribed and included in the book. Also included are the comments of his daughter, author Anne Fadiman, whose book on books and reading, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, was the subject of a Books & Beyond program held last fall at the Library.
As expected, many classic works of literature such as Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom!, Dickens's Great Expectations and Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov were repeatedly cited by contributors, but more obscure works -- some fondly remembered from childhood -- were credited with instilling a lifelong love of reading and writing. Some surprising connections were also made between the impact of literature on life. Among them was the poet Robert Bly's assertion that "I don't think I would ever have opposed the Vietnam War through poetry and public action if I hadn't read The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by Robert Blake," wrote Mr. Bly. "Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk were both -- in Blake's terms -- (negative) Angels, trying to use reason to oppose Energy."
Since "turnabout is fair play," Mr. Shwartz was obliged to list his personal favorites, which include Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion, Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad and The Collected Essays of George Orwell. However, he also acknowledged that "the one in which I have invested the most time, joy, sweat equity and communal pride -- I would have to say, with humility and gratitude for the musings of an extraordinary roster of writers, it is this one."
Ms. Fischer is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.