I used to be embarrassed if someone “caught “ me looking at the books on their shelves. I’m over that. I am a book person. I look, no apologies.
I love the new book My Ideal Bookshelf wherein the editors asked a bunch of people, some writers, but also artists and designers of all kinds, to assemble their ideal bookshelf. Then an artist did watercolors (at least, I think they’re watercolors) of the books on each shelf (when in reality it’s doubtful that they occupy a single shelf. Mine surely don’t, not even in the above photo). One guy chose his ideal bookshelf based on the colors of their spines. Why not? He is an artist. An ideal bookshelf for me is tough to assemble. I could probably assemble a dozen ideal bookshelves, depending on mood, the weather, alcohol intake, etc. For this list, I began to think of books that were influential to me, books that have been read over and over, books that were touchstones for important experiences or relationships in my life. My Ideal Bookshelf. Here it is.
Paddle-to-the-Sea, Holling Clancy Holling. This is the classic 1941 children’s book illustrating the Great Lakes and the romance of the north. Holling was an artist and this is geography, gorgeous and inviting. My father’s mother, a children’s librarian, gave this to me, signed and dated.
Lives of the Saints, 1955. The only book in my Grandmother’ Flynn’s house (other than the bible). Furthermore, she had no television (actually, she had one, just no reception). Thus, we read this book, looking mostly at the illustrations of the violent ends of the martyrs. After my Grandma died my Aunt gave my grandmother’s copy to me.
St Joseph’s Daily Missal. The standard Confirmation gift, consulted at daily mass, and also Sunday mass. I read it until the covers came off. I probably had mine for only three years before they stopped saying the mass in Latin. I recently acquired another copy, this one in near mint condition, except the child owner’s name and address in the front. Doubtless a Confirmation gift for a would-be Catholic who never attended mass again. I am happy to have the Latin at my fingertips once again.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. My father gave me these for Christmas in 1969. There are four volumes, bound in red leather and the pages are gilt with gold leaf on the top. The print is too small for me to read now, without a magnifying glass. The same Christmas he gave me a stopwatch, as at 16 I was a serious runner. The first (of few!) early hints that my dad knew what I was about.
Mount Analogue, Rene Daumal, 1952 I had heard of this in the climbing underground long before I found a copy of it. I now own two translations of it, a hardcover first edition in English, and a copy in the original French. The cult classic for all hippie mountaineers, wanna-be mystics of the 1970s.
Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry, 1947. How can a story about death by dissipation be so beautiful? How can I love a fictional character who is so utterly . . . helpless? The miracle of language is here.
foto Hnos Mayo. 1992. This is a book of photographs taken in the forties and fifties in Mexico by the Hermanos Mayo, Spaniards who fled Franco’s Spain and championed the working class. The book was an extravagance that I bought at the Los Angeles Museum of Art when I couldn’t afford it. It became a touchstone for my novel Forty Crows, which is set mostly in Mexico City. It was published in a limited run as a catalog for an exhibition. I love owning it and thinking of its scarcity.
Climbs on Alpine Peaks, Abate Achille Ratti (Pope Pius XI), 1923. The ecstasy of climbing as recorded by the then-not-yet pope. The main climb he writes about here is an early ascent of the Dufourspitz of Monte Rosa from the Italian side, a peak John McInerney and I climbed in 1980.
The Mont Blanc Massif: the 100 Finest Routes, Gaston Rebuffat. The 100 finest routes in order of difficulty. A guidebook, a history, a coffee table book. I carried it with me on European climbing trips and copied out the route descriptions on scraps of paper that I carried in my pocket on climbs.
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004). For thirteen years we lived in a town that didn’t have bookstore. Thus whenever we had to go to a larger town, for medical reasons, say, we also went to the bookstore. Thus I bought my copy of this the day I was diagnosed with cancer. And I read it weeks later after surgery and in a morphine haze. (See last post, .)
The Path to Tranquility, Daily Wisdom. The Dalai Lama. These are short daily meditations. I try to read them every day. I read them as I once read St Joseph’s Daily Missal (sporadically, but with good intentions!).
Of Walking in Ice, Werner Herzog. In 1974 Herzog travelled by foot in midwinter from Munich to Paris under the belief than the pilgrimage would somehow ensure the survival of his friend the film historian Lotte Eisner who was dying of some terrible illness. The book purports to be a transcription of his journal from the trip. I know of nothing else like it: it's an interior look at an artist’s mind. Although I have only had my copy for two years, it has gone out of print again and used copies are rare and expensive. I am lucky to own it.