Just as the promise of the paperless office has never materialized, I regard electronic books as useful, in their way, but unlikely to supplant the volumes in my library or my love affair with books. If I had my way and the means to accomplish it, half the walls in our home would be lined with shelves - and as it is our attic has taken on the look of a used bookshop with ranks of bookshelves and stacks of tomes. There are perhaps 2,000 books in all - not a large collection by some standards but large enough to occupy a substantial amount of space in a house of not quite 1,600 square feet.
My wife, also fond of books, is less fond of the utter clutter that accompanies my bibliophilia, and some of the most contentious debates in our marriage involve the threatened breaking up of the collection and disposal of books once read and never returned to, and from which I still have no desire to be parted. Some represent moments in my personal chronology of greater symbolic than literary value to me - a good example would be Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man (1969), a gift from my high school girlfriend, in which a Jewish time traveler assumes the role of Christ after discovering that the real Jesus was anything but the biblical son of God. It was the sort of iconoclastic literature that appealed to her troubled teenage heart and that I may never read again but am glad to see on shelves with other books I discovered in my youth.
Others are references to which I regularly return, particularly the environmental and natural history books that are most relevant to my current thoughts and interests. The cookbooks in our kitchen include those that we use regularly and those I am delighted to have despite their limited practical applications: Dinner with Tom Jones (1977) is a classic example of the latter sort, a compendium of 18th century British recipes published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and adapted for modern cooks. I have attempted Flounder Pie (not a particular success) but have passed on Eels Fry'd:
You must scotch them very thick in, cut each Eel in eight Pieces, mix them up with Yolks of Eggs, and season them with Pepper, Salt, grated Bread, Thyme and Parsly; then flower them and fry them...serve them with melted Butter and fry'd Parsly - Dinner with Tom Jones pg. 66
There are a handful however, that fall into an elite category. These are books that had profound impacts, which reward re-reading, and which I maintain several copies of because I tend to recommend and lend them to friends but cannot bear to replace them if never returned. Among my all-time favorites:
The Master and Margarita by Mikhael Bulgakov. Mick Jagger reportedly wrote Sympathy for the Devil after reading the first (censored) English translation of this satirical Russian novel in 1967. One of the great 20th century novels in any language, I could only wish to be able to read it in the original Russian - my friend Will brought me a copy from Bulgakov's hometown Kiev a few years ago much to my delight.
Satan and his entourage - including a succubus and a tommy gun toting cat named Behemoth - arrive in atheist, Soviet Moscow in the 1930s and chaos ensues.
"The havoc wreaked by this group targets the literary elite, along with its trade union, MASSOLIT (a Soviet-style abbreviation for "Moscow Society of Literature", but possibly interpretable as "Literature for the Masses"; one edition of the book also mentions that this could be a play on words in Russian, which could be translated into English as something like "LOTTALIT"), its privileged HQ-cum-restaurant Griboyedov's House, corrupt social-climbers and their women (wives and mistresses alike) – bureaucrats and profiteers – and, more generally, skeptical unbelievers in the human spirit."
This storyline intersects with two others - the betrayal and crucification of Christ and its retelling with Pontius Pilate as the protagonist in a masterwork by a tormented writer confined to an asylum. Bulgakov sends up the state and the patriarchs and managed to offend both in a sweeping tale of power and art, "a psycho-drama playing itself out in the literary world" that famously affirms: "manuscripts don't burn." There are layers upon layers in this one but Cliff Notes or a degree in Russian Literature are not required.
Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) is Ken Kesey's 2nd novel - flawed perhaps, but glorious in the attempt, is the Faulknarian story of an heroic strikebreaking family of loggers in the Pacific Northwest. The language is rich, descriptive, surreal, and the story sucks you in like the broad river gumming its banks and the stubborn, resisting buttress of the Stamper place, where "an ancient two-story wood-frame house rests on a structure of tangled steel, of wood and earth and sacks of sand, like a two-story bird with split-shake featherings, sitting fierce in its tangled nest..." There are many memorable images here, none more so than a logging accident that pins one of the characters beneath a fallen tree in rising floodwater, and its examination of filial relationships and what love and that saturated, muddy green landscape can do to a person make for compelling reading.
In my grandparent's generation the family had a number of Navy men overseas during The War, and not surprisingly there are multiple copies of Nicholas Monsarrat's 1952 novel The Cruel Sea scattered in their various homes. It is a sea tale like none other, the Battle of the Atlantic told in the story of two ships (one doomed) and the men who served in them escorting British convoys through the terrible years of U-boat warfare from the beginning of the war to its close.
It is a haunting book, and as the author says "the men are the stars of this story. The only heroines are the ships, and the only villain the cruel sea itself." If Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot reveals the fear and precarious existence of the U-boat crew, then The Cruel Sea does the same for the convoys they hunted and the plucky corvettes that tried to defend them from the terror of the torpedo and the unseen enemy. There is one passage about a burning tanker and the fate of its crew, trying to swim to the safety of a British Corvette whose crew could only watch while the surface of the sea caught fire and pursued the swimmers, that has stayed with me since I first read this book back in the the 1980s:
Waiting a little way off, they were entirely helpless: they stood on the bridge, and did nothing, and said nothing. One of the look-outs, a young seaman of not more than seventeen, was crying as he looked towards the fire: he made no sound, but the tears were streaming down his face. It was not easy to say what sort of tears they were - of rage, of pity, of bitterness of watching the men dying so cruelly, and not being able to do a thing about it."
Another fire, another tragic loss of life, is at the heart of Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire (1992). Maclean reveals in vivid and thoroughly researched prose the story of the notorious Mann Gulch fire, which claimed the lives of 12 elite smoke jumpers in a 1949 blowup where the crews were trapped upslope of a racing inferno that outpaced all but two of those who ran - too late and too far - reach the crest of the ridge ahead of the flames. Maclean tells the tale of the fire and its aftermath, the changes in wildfire fighting tactics and understanding of wildland fire behavior. Two years after this book was published, the South Canyon Fire in Colorado claimed the lives of 14 elite men and women "hotshot" firefighters under eerily similar conditions. Maclean's son John Maclean tells their story in Fire on the Mountain.
Finally, perhaps the best natural history book I have read this decade, I offer an unqualified recommendation of Tim Flannery's magnificent epic: The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and its Peoples (2001).
"The Eternal Frontier is the dramatic story of the geologic formation and biological evolution of the North American continent, from the asteroid strike that ended the age of dinosaurs 65 million years ago to today...history on a monumental scale - and a riveting page turner that is already being hailed by critics as a classic."
Flannery has been compared to Jared Diamond and Stephen Jay Gould and called the better writer: high praise indeed. This is the book to read to find out why pronghorn antelope run far faster than any living predator, or whether evidence suggests Mammoths were hunted to extinction or died from habitat loss due to climate change.
You can't go wrong with any of these. Love to know what books would make your "elite" lending list from your own libraries.