I love book lists: ticking off what I’ve read from newspaper and website selections, comparing my “best-of” choices and prize predictions with other people’s, and making up my own thematic inventories. Earlier in the year I spotted Desert Island-style 100-book lists on Annabookbel and A life in books, as well as Lonesome Reader’s reconsideration of the 100 favorite books he’d chosen half a lifetime ago. For my 35th birthday today, I’ve looked back at my “Absolute Favorites” shelf on Goodreads and picked the 35 titles that stand out the most for me: some are childhood favorites, some are books that changed my thinking, some I have read two or three times (an extreme rarity for me), and some are recent discoveries that have quickly become personal classics. I’ve listed these in rough chronological order of when I first read them, rather than ranking them, which would be nigh on impossible! Perhaps I’ll revisit the list on future significant birthdays and see how things change. Interesting to note that this works out as about two-thirds fiction and one-third nonfiction.
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
Watership Down by Richard Adams
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Possession by A.S. Byatt
Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
Sixpence House by Paul Collins
A History of God by Karen Armstrong
Conundrum by Jan Morris
The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty
Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Caribou Island by David Vann
To Travel Hopefully by Christopher Rush
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
This is a follow-up to a piece I wrote in September about the books that shaped my early life. I think of my twenties in general, and 2005–7 in particular, as a golden period in my reading life, when I started to develop the tastes that still guide my book choices today.
I was an English and Religion major and studied abroad in England for my junior year in 2003–4. As I was getting ready to go overseas for that first time in the summer of 2003, Susan Allen Toth’s trilogy of travel memoirs, starting with My Love Affair with England, and Paul Collins’s Sixpence House whetted my appetite for travel in Great Britain and, in the case of the latter, made me determined to get to Hay-on-Wye, Wales as soon as I could. (I first visited in May 2004 and have gone back several times since.)
One of the most memorable books I read during my year abroad was Robert Elsmere by Mrs. Humphry Ward. It’s almost forgotten nowadays, but was a bestseller at its release in 1888. The story of a minister’s loss of faith and how it affects his marriage, it’s a stand-in for a whole faith-and-doubt subgenre that was wildly popular at the time. The novel is long, brooding and overwritten—in many ways it exemplifies the worst characteristics of the Victorian novel—but it resonated with my own crisis of faith and planted the seed for my Master’s thesis on women’s faith and doubt narratives in Victorian fiction.
Part of working through that ongoing crisis of faith was seeing other religions more objectively and being open to the similarities between them. I found Karen Armstrong’s comparative study of the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism and Islam), A History of God, absolutely riveting when I read it in my senior year of college. It’s a classic.
My academic conference career began and ended with one I attended the summer after college graduation. I adapted a paper I’d written about D.H. Lawrence’s new moral framework for sexuality and was accepted to present it at the D.H. Lawrence Society of North America’s annual conference in 2005, which that year was held in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Thankfully, I’ve mostly blanked out my actual paper presentation as part of a panel of three young people, but the trip as a whole was wonderful—it was my first time in the southwest, and the conference included great field trips to Lawrence’s ranch at Taos and the Georgia O’Keeffe museum. I prepared for the experience by reading David Lodge’s Small World, a paperback I’d plucked from the shelves of the bookstore where I worked part-time during my senior year. “A satire about the academic conference circuit? I’m there!” I thought, and since then David Lodge has become one of my two or three favorite authors.
It wasn’t until I returned to England to get my Master’s in 2005–6 that I really reclaimed reading as a leisure activity. The last couple years of college had been so busy I’d barely been able to cope with my assigned reading; I remember never making it very far in any paperback I picked up from the public library (like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which I’ve never gone back to). But the long, lonely evenings in Leeds had to be filled somehow, and the upstairs stacks of the magnificent Brotherton Library had plenty to offer in the way of literary fiction. In that year I made my way through loads of books by A.S. Byatt and Julian Barnes, as well as David Lodge (my top 3, probably). Possession made the biggest impression, but I love pretty much all of Byatt’s work. If pressed to name my favorite author, it would be her.
In the partial year between finishing my Master’s and getting married back in England, I lived at home with my parents and worked part-time at a community college library. My evening shifts were often dead quiet, so I got plenty of reading done behind the circulation desk. One book I selected at random from the public library shelves, Abigail Thomas’s A Three Dog Life, had a big impact on me in 2007. The memoir tells of her husband’s traumatic brain injury and the aftermath. Thomas writes in a fragmentary, episodic format that felt fresh and jolted me. I wasn’t entirely sure I liked the style, but it sure was intriguing.
I picked up Meredith Hall’s Without a Map around the same time, which cemented my interest in women’s life stories. Memoirs have been among my favorite genres ever since. Mark Doty’s exquisite Heaven’s Coast, which I read the following year, kickstarted my particular fascination with bereavement memoirs. Also, I think it was through following up his memoirs with his collections of poems that I first got into contemporary poetry.
In recent years I’ve tried to branch out (e.g. into graphic novels and literature in translation), but contemporary literary fiction, historical fiction, memoirs, theology and travel books remain my preferred genres. Most of these loves I can trace back to my early twenties.
What books meant the most to you in young adulthood?
Last summer I very much enjoyed Malachy Tallack’s first book, 60 Degrees North, a memoir cum travel book about looking for a place to call home in the midst of a nomadic life; see my Nudge review. His new book is a gorgeous art object (illustrated by Katie Scott), composed of two- or three-page mini-essays about the real and legendary islands that have disappeared and/or been disproved over the centuries. A few of the names may be familiar – Atlantis, Thule and the Isles of the Blessed, perhaps – but many of the rest are fairly obscure entries in the historical and geographical record.
It’s fascinating to see how some of these islands inhabit both mythological and real space. For instance, my favorite story is that of Hufaidh in the Southern Iraq marshes. This area where the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers meet was the ancestral home of the Ma‘dān or “Marsh Arabs,” and was known to Western visitors such as Gavin Maxwell, who came to collect his otter Mijbil (the subject of Ring of Bright Water) there, and travel writer Wilfred Thesiger. Tallack writes that Hufaidh “was part paradise and part hell, both of this world and another.” When Thesiger asked locals about the island in the 1950s, he was told that “anyone who sees Hufaidh is bewitched, and afterwards no-one can understand his words.” So Hufaidh was mythical? In a sense, Tallack acknowledges, and yet Saddam Hussein’s deliberate destruction of the marshes after the first Gulf War also obliterated Hufaidh, and even the ongoing campaign of ecological restoration can never bring it back.
I was also intrigued by the tale of the Auroras, presumed to be located between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. They were sighted multiple times between 1762 and 1796, including by a Spanish research ship, but were never seen again after the eighteenth century. Were the sailors simply mistaken? In 1820 Captain James Weddell concluded that they must have confused the Shag Rocks, 100 miles to the east, for a new set of islands. But the mystery remained, as evidenced by Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which has a ship’s crew searching for the Auroras as well as for fur seals.
Plato almost certainly invented Atlantis for his allegories, but in reading this book you will learn that some islands are indeed suspected to have sunk, like Sarah Ann Island in the Pacific, which the USA claimed for its guano resources. And while you might think that bogus territories could not exist in the late twentieth or early twenty-first centuries, a few did: the Terra Nova Islands of the Antarctic were only removed from the map in 1989, and Bermeja, an island in the Gulf of Mexico disputed between the United States and Mexico, was only definitively proven not to exist in 2009.
A few of these cases feel thin or repetitive; even with 24 islands discussed in full and another 10 listed with capsule explanations in an appendix, you sometimes get the sense that the book required a lot of barrel-scraping to craft satisfying narratives out of frustratingly incomplete stories. Still, Tallack has done an admirable job parsing fact from fiction and extracting broad lessons about the truths that might lie deeper than our atlas pages:
Absence is terrifying, and so we fill the gaps in our knowledge with invented things. These bring us comfort, but they conflict, too, with our desire for certainty and understanding.
The science of navigation has worked towards the eradication … of mystery, and to an astonishing degree it has succeeded. We can know where we are and what direction we are traveling with just the click of a button. And though that technology brings its own kind of wonder, part of us mourns what has been lost.
With its excellent color illustrations, this would make a perfect coffee table book to dip into whenever you have five or ten spare minutes to read an essay or two. I would particularly recommend it to readers who are captivated by maps, historical oddities and hoaxes.
(My review copy came wrapped in matching paper!)
The Un-Discovered Islands releases in the UK tomorrow. My thanks to Kristian Kerrof Birlinn Polygon for the free copy.
Further reading: Two similar books I’ve read are The Ice Museum by Joanna Kavenna (about the search for Thule) and Banvard’s Folly by Paul Collins (more tangentially relevant – it’s about historical mistakes and failures). You might also try Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands.
My eagle eye for anything related to Hay-on-Wye led me to this book, a memoir of sorts about moving to the Welsh Borders in the search for a sense of community. Journalist Oliver Balch and his wife had previously lived in London and then started a family while living in Argentina. Although they loved the vibrancy and social opportunities of city life, when they moved back to the UK in 2012 they were in search of something different:
I fancied living somewhere with open skies and fresh air; somewhere I could strap on my walking boots and head out for a hike; somewhere alive to the sound of birdsong rather than bus exhausts. I envisioned the same for the boys. Growing up in wellies and with dirty knees. Weekend camping trips. Swimming in the river.
But it was more than just the natural scenery that drew him to the England–Wales border town of Clyro. “I liked the idea of finding a place where I could truly belong. It would be good to be on the inside for once, to be a thread or stitch in the social fabric.” It was John Updike, of all people, who inspired him to seek out small-town life. “For a writer, it’s good to live between a widow and a plumber,” Updike wrote – to be surrounded by different, ordinary people and get to know your neighbors in an old-fashioned but still desirable way.
After the family settled in at Pottery Cottage, another of Balch’s guiding spirits was Reverend Francis Kilvert, curate of Clyro from 1865 to 1872. He’s known today for the diary he started keeping in 1870. As he went around visiting, he made pen portraits of his parishioners, often summing people up through one apt phrase of Dickensian description. In a sense, Balch is trying to do the same thing with these sketches of his new community members. Meanwhile, he weaves in biographical information about Kilvert in much the same way that Helen Macdonald does about T.H. White in H is for Hawk.
There’s still an active Kilvert Society today, and early on Balch joined them for a tour of Clyro. With the River Wye, the Black Mountains and the book town of Hay-on-Wye all in range, it’s a splendid view:
The Wye is at its nearest to the east, huddled in the dip between two rippled fields of honeyed wheat and brilliant yellow rapeseed, its emerald-green waters rushing fast above the reeds. … Burrowed among the trees above its far bank stands Hay, a blue-grey patchwork of tiled rooftops amid a swathe of sylvan green. Poking above the tree canopy is the castle … And then beyond, of course, the barren bouldery bulk of the Black Mountains. Implacably wild. Their beauty hard, unremitting, almost brutish in their bluntness.
Balch starts trying to fit in by joining the regular drinkers at the Rhydspence Inn, an old-fashioned pub, on Wednesday nights. He’s closest with Tony, a farmer, and subsequently observes the Young Farmers group. In other chapters he profiles the unconventional, hippie types drawn to the area, like the owners of Hay’s fair trade shop; and the locals and shopkeepers involved in the Thursday market. He also sits in on some community planning meetings and learns about a recent anti-supermarket campaign. The Town Council and the “Hay Together” interest group are often at odds, he learns. A Chamber of Commerce meeting turns into an argument about renovating the Castle, one of Hay’s chief landmarks.
My favorite chapter of all was about the Hay Festival, one of the foremost literary festivals in the UK. (It starts this week, in fact.) Although I’ve been to Hay five times since 2004, I’ve never attended its annual festival. I loved getting a peek behind the scenes, as Balch interviewed an author who’d written a guide to the local area. For Balch, his feelings about the festival prove that he’s finally thinking more like a local than an ‘incomer’:
Part of me is elated that the outside world has landed on our doorstep. For a brief window in late spring, everywhere I turn there are urbanites like me. … Simultaneously, part of me recoils. … I feel invaded. Some traitorous wretch has spilled word of our rural haven and now legions of out-of-towners have arrived, overrunning the place with their unmuddied cars and city manners.
Even in the decade that I’ve been visiting, I can recognize some of the processes Balch pinpoints – essentially evidence of gentrification going on in Hay and the surrounding area. Under the ownership of an American female entrepreneur, for instance, Booth’s Bookshop has been transformed from a falling-down jumble sale into a well-presented independent bookstore with a posh café. Some of the locals Balch meets are delighted with the changes, while others feel that the snobs are taking over and driving up prices for regular folk.
If I was a bit disappointed with this book, it’s because I didn’t fully heed the subtitle – “Sketches of Real Life on the Welsh Borders.” It’s not meant to be a chronological narrative of Balch’s time in Clyro but a thematic tour, with some common threads running through. This means that, depending on the reader, certain chapters will probably seem much more interesting than others. So the best part of “The Young Farmers” chapter, for me, was a description of a cow doing a messy poo (“the most splendid jet of steaming gravy-colored excrement”); otherwise I found it entirely tedious.
Perhaps I wrongly expected this to be exactly like Paul Collins’s Sixpence House. This 2003 memoir of trying to make a life in Hay is among my all-time favorite reads. Although similar on the surface, Under the Tump is a very different book. I appreciated it most as a narrative of searching for a place to call home – something that will surely strike a chord with any reader.