“Walden reminds me to get off the laptop and live a life worth writing about.”
– Antony Millen
There’s no desert island scenario here, but if you HAD to make the choice, what 10 books would you keep on your shelf, regardless of advancements in technology or shifts in your life circumstances or philosophy?
In Te Kauhanga, one of my characters, Sharon, is a hoarder – primarily of books and magazines. She tries to address her situation with the help of two very different people with different approaches and philosophies. Hers is one tale of space(s) that examines why we hold on to certain physical objects in our lives.
This year, I’ve been adapting to the minimalist lifestyle – a lifestyle that suited me when I first arrived in New Zealand, particularly when it came to book collecting. Prior to my shift, I was an avid book collector, having completed my English degree and filling up shelves with titles I wanted even if I didn’t have time to read them all.
When I left Canada, with six large bags for a four-person family, I didn’t have room for many books, so I left boxes and boxes of them stored at home. I fully intended to return to them in a couple of years and knew that I couldn’t carry on collecting while I was here. Instead, I took just two books with me. To fill the void, I borrowed books from the town and school libraries and from friends and colleagues, often reading things I might not have otherwise. I only bought from second hand shops and passed books on when I’d finished with them.
Over the years and with the realisation that I wasn’t returning to my books in Canada any time soon, I began gathering some here. I’ve made one trip home in seventeen years – and a major component of this was dealing with all my boxes of books. I sold many to the Book Exchange and (don’t gasp too loudly) sent some to the tip. I took some treasures back to New Zealand to begin my collection anew. I’m told I still have some boxes left back there, but instead of attempting another consolidation, I will soon be issuing an instruction for their disposal.
For, this year, inspired by my ventures into minimalist philosophy, I’ve conducted a major cull in my house – reducing my collection to a couple of small shelves’ worth. I’ve begun using a Kindle and am again borrowing from libraries, my English department‘s resource room and friends. When I feel an urge to buy a used paperback I do so, read it and store it in the department or give it to my friend who keeps feeding me books from his extensive and wonderful collection – ones he thinks I will enjoy. He’s almost always right.
BUT – there are some books I believe will always stay on my shelf, although I’m learning that the word ALWAYS is a dangerous word in minimalism. By the way, minimalism is not about some harsh monastic lifestyle – it’s about choosing to acquire and keep only things that add real value to your life and getting rid of the rest so you can enjoy everything that remains and the freedom in the space the other objects once occupied. My choices of these texts are based on the past, but also on moving forward – which texts will continue to add value to my life as a human being, a reader and, as I elucidate in this post, as a writer?
So, here is everything that remains – my top 10 books that will always stay on my bookshelf for re-reading and as a source of inspiration for my own writing.
10. The Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkein) – I read The Hobbit as a boy, a gift from my parents (our parents always gave us a book for our birthdays and Christmas). I never knew much about The Lord of the Rings until university when I met a non-English major (as I thought of everyone else back then) who said he had read it dozens of times. I finally read it among the hills of the King Country in New Zealand during my time in Ngapuke, often in the branches of a large tree over one summer. It’s an experience I’ll never recapture: reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time and in New Zealand – and yes, I read it here before there was even an announcement that Peter Jackson would make his films in New Zealand.
Value added to this writer: The back of my original copies of The Lord of the Rings praised it for its breadth, a comment with which, in my English major snobbery, I agreed, believing that the comment was back-handed, insinuating that the book did not have the depth that some seek. I now disagree – the depth of the book is astounding. However, as a writer now, I look to it for setting and world creation elements as well as character relationships.
9. The Mountain and the Valley (Ernest Buckler) – Remember when I wrote there were only two books I carried with me to New Zealand? This was one of them (the other makes it further up on this list). I studied The Mountain and the Valley at university as part of a wonderful course on the Intellectual and Cultural History of Canada (Professor Laurie Stanley-Blackwell). The story centres on David Canaan, a pining writer who never leaves to accomplish his dream. Some have said he might not have had the talent anyway. Ouch.
Value added to this writer: Keeping it real. David never left. Did he have talent? Who knows? He and the world will never know because he didn’t do it. To me, it’s a call to write without worrying about things like talent or time or exposure or approval or . . . .
8. The War of Art (Stephen Pressfield) – This book was instrumental to me in writing my first novel. I discovered it by listening to the Accidental Creative podcast in my attempts to break through the blocks preventing me from writing. I pursued Pressfield’s ideas the cheap way at first, finding an interview with Pressfield (one I still share with my students), but it was buying the book and reading it that made the difference. I treated this book like the kick in the pants it is designed to be and like a daily devotion, not unlike Bob Gass’ Word for Today. Each night, before writing, I read a couple of passages from The War of Art. Two pages of Pressfield and I was launched past and through the resistance I had built in my head and writing furiously (well maybe not furiously, but it can be war-like at times).
Value added to this writer: Inspiration for pushing past resistances of all sorts – not just for writers but for all creatives.
7. Walden (Henry David Thoreau) – No, this is not on here because of Dead Poet’s Society or Into the Wild, although I do love those movies. I read Thoreau for the first time during a period of self discovery that started with Anthony Robbins which led to Ralph Waldo Emerson which lead to Thoreau. I love Emerson’s essays, but reading Thoreau’s experiment and the observations he makes always challenges me to re-assess how I use my time and space – a book I’m re-reading during this new minimalist pursuit.
Value added to this writer: Reminds me to get off the laptop and live a life worth writing about.
6. East of Eden (John Steinbeck) – Steinbeck should really be higher on the list, but sentimentality will soon take over. Steinbeck’s advice on writing was just as instrumental in helping me with Brother Murrihy as Pressfield’s. And The Grapes of Wrath could just as easily be here as East of Eden. Half-way into the first chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, I had one of those rare, but not unfamiliar moments of epiphany, spontaneuously exclaiming, “Oh my God, this is good prose!” ( I know – it doesn’t sound as dramatic in the re-telling). The copy I read belongs to the department and sits at the back of my classroom glowing at me whenever I walk by the shelf of classics. East of Eden came to me later and at just the right time. The Cain and Able story helped with writing about brothers in Brother Murrihy and also helped me appreciate Maurice Shadbolt’s Strangers and Journeys which I’ve dubbed New Zealand’s East of Eden. Eden is filled with more amazing prose and the sample of work from one of my favourite authors on my shelf. Of course, Steinbeck is an influence on another of my favourite writers: Bruce Springsteen.
Value added to this writer: Prose! But also characterisation, particularly in Steinbeck’s use of dialogue, including techniques I’m nowhere brave enough to try in my own writing yet.
5. X-Men: Days of Future Past (Chris Claremont) – I haven’t seen the movie yet and I’m not sure I want to. This, along with The Dark Phoenix Saga and the first Wolverine series (Frank Miller) currently sits on my shelf and is the one I would keep if I had to choose. It represents the early peaks of my comic collecting days, including memories of seeing issue #141 for the first time. It belonged to a friend at school and I can still picture the astounding cover on the table between us depicting so many of my heroes dead in their future. The story still holds and captures my imagination as much as it did when I was 10. I may never write my own comic book, but I do want to write a novel with heroes that stagger in their courage, in their abilities and in their vulnerabilities within a complex political and moral context.
Value added to this writer: Appreciation for the heroic qualities in characters that capture imagination of the young and the old.
4. The Riverside Shakespeare (Ed. G Blakemore Evans) – This is another book that should be even higher on the list – and it might be were it not for the sheer volume of it (pun intended). I still blame any shoulder pains I have on lugging this thing around my university. I consider my thesis on The Role of the Outsider in Shakespearean Drama to be my first published work and one that required I spend a lot of time with and in this book. Too heavy for my original trip, I took The Riverside back to New Zealand with me after my visit home in 2007.
Value added to this writer: Quite simply, I love the stories. It’s a reference, and I use it to impress students with the quantity of what Shakespeare wrote. It invigorates me when I teach Shakespeare to students with it in my hand. It conjures up hours of passionate study, the wisdom of Professor Derek Wood at St FX, etc. Its pages are filled with my own notes.
3. The Giving Tree (Shel Silverstein) – This book was given to me by my Uncle Clinton and is another book, along with The Riverside Shakespeare, that I took back with me after my one visit home. This ranks high for three reasons: it’s small and easy to carry; it has an inscription from my uncle along with some avant-gard sketches by yours truly; it tells a wonderful story with a valuable lesson for all, one whose value I see even more as I age. It’s comparable to Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever which was a favourite to read to my own children.
Value added to this writer: An example of writing at the heart level with beautifully concise rhythms of language and phrasing. It’s a circle of life thing.
2. The Mosquito Coast (Paul Theroux) – This is the second of the two books I took with me to New Zealand and ranks higher on my list than The Mountain and the Valley. I read this book first as a teenager and as a fan of Harrison Ford (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Witness). For some reason, I read the book before seeing the movie. It tells the story about an inventor who uproots his family from the southern United States and moves them to the Honduran jungle where he attempts to establish his own community and bring ice-making to the locals. It’s a terrific failure. While I see the similarities now, I read this book without knowledge of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Thoreau’s Walden so, for me, The Mosquito Coast is my Heart of Darkness and Walden. I took it to New Zealand, not because I saw myself as a campaigner like Allie Fox, but because I felt the connection with the father who uprooted his family to establish himself on the other side of the world. The jury’s still out about my failure or success, but the book continues to inspire me and I see its influence in some of my writing and in my other interests in films like Into the Wild, books like The Poisonwood Bible and in the Minimalist movement.
Value added to this writer: A wonderful treatment of the picaresque genre – a template for me in writing journey stories like Redeeming Brother Murrihy.
1. Holy Bible (King James Version) – Wait! Before you skip this because it’s a cliché for an author who is Christian to put this at #1, let me tell you my story! My grandparents gave me this very copy. Its size and soft-bound leather feel great in my hands and it fits well in any bag. It has travelled with me wherever I’ve gone even for one night trips where I knew there would be a Bible waiting for me in a hotel drawer. I haven’t always read it, but I’ve carried it, not quite like a talisman for travel, but because – whatever! I’ve since read the Bible through in other translations (good value actually), but this is the one I’d keep on my shelf.
Value added to this writer: Stories, inspiration, language, universal themes, symbols and allusions – what more could I want?
Honorary Mentions – I know, this is cheating! Last year, my bibliophile friend painted me this bookshelf including my top 25 books of all time (partially inspired by Jane Mount’s beautiful book, The Ideal Bookshelf). I asked him to paint them in the order I read them:
Of these, To Kill a Mockingbird would definitely have made my list if I owned a copy. I have called it a perfect novel – but it’s also one that is easily accessible to me on someone else’s shelf.
So – what books would you choose if you could only keep 10 on your shelf or if you were travelling to the other side of the panet? What books add the most value to your life and why? Answer in the poll below and/or leave me a comment!
Two last things – you may have noticed that all the photos of the books in this post are actual books, not digital images. However, all the photos link to the books’ pages on Goodreads. I recommend Goodreads as an alternative to hoarding books. If you ever cull your collection, set up an account on Goodreads where you can “collect” your books in the form of a reading list. If you do, look me up over there and tell me how you got on.