The ideal bookshelf

I took this lovely book out from the library a couple of weekends ago:

ideal bookshelf

My Ideal Bookshelf was put together by Thessaly La Force and is a compilation of one-page essays by various writers and other creative people discussing the books that have touched them. Each essay is also beautifully illustrated (by the artist Jane Mount) with paintings of the contributor’s books. I’ll admit that the best part about reading this book is looking through the bookshelves, especially those of the writers (I found that many of the non-writers tended to cite books related to their trade).

There are essays by a little over a hundred writers, artists, architects, chefs and others. Among the contributors are Rosanne Cash, Jennifer Egan, Dave Eggers, Atul Gawande, Malcolm Gladwell, Pico Iyer, Mary Karr and George Saunders. I recognized some names but not many others. However, I was thrilled to see four of my favorite writers included: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Junot Diaz, Yiyun Li and David Sedaris.

They say you can learn a lot about a person by seeing what’s on his bookshelf; in this compilation, you can also see a lot about the person through the way he describes how he’s been impacted by books. I know I’m biased, but I loved what Junot Diaz wrote:

Immigration first got me reading . . . In reading, no one could criticize my English. In reading, I could practice English; I could live in English . . . These books show that I’m trying to understand the world. I’m trying to understand what it means to be an American in what we would call the long American century. . . For me there’s always the wonder of how closely we can exit under such impossible odds, the wonder of a new life brilliantly told.

junot diaz bookshelf

Junot Diaz’s bookshelf

Then there’s the  mega-selling mystery author whose name I won’t mention, who seems to want to focus a little more on himself and his own success than on what has impacted him. 😉

Of course, you can’t read this book without thinking about what you would put on your own ideal bookshelf.

In the book’s preface, La Force writes:

Select a small shelf of books that represents you – made you who you are today, your favorites . . . It’s a snapshot of you in a moment of time. You could build an ideal bookshelf every year of your life and it would be completely different. And just as satisfying.

And it is here that I appreciate what George Saunders has to say about putting together and sharing his ideal bookshelf:

Forget any pedantic bullshit, forget trying to make my list look smarter than everyone else’s – what books would I actually get off on? 

george saunders bookshelf

George Saunders’ bookshelf

And so, with that in mind, here’s my list as of today. I have other favorites, but these are the books that have impacted me in some way or were read at some critical point in my life:

Deenie (Judy Blume) – I don’t know if I could have survived adolescence without Judy Blume. Deenie was the first book that made me realize I could almost find a friend inside a book, and find a voice that I could relate to and identify with. Deenie was also my favorite Judy Blume character.

Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell) – I read this in the 6th grade and it was my first “grown-up” book and the first and only story I’d ever gotten obsessed with. Deep down I think I was in love with Rhett Butler, beginning a long trend in gravitating toward “scoundrels” (a dysfunctional tendency that luckily ended before I met my husband!).

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith) – I think I read this some time when I was 12 or 13, a hard time in my life for family reasons and also just because of the fact that I was 12 or 13. All I can remember is that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn helped fill a deep void inside of me at the time.

The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank) – I’m seeing a pattern emerging here; I think I was very much drawn to the personal voices of girls around my age, girls who had gone through some hardship. Anne Frank’s story was, of course, the most frightening and unimaginable of all.

Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky) – I read this in high school and it triggered my interest in Russia and Russian novelists. I think this is also when I first became fascinated with stories of internal moral conflict and anguish.

The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath) – This found me or I found it, during my own period of depression in college.

Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte) – Similar to Crime and Punishment, Wuthering Heights catalyzed my fascination with moral and other internal conflicts in love.

The Yellow Wallpaper (Charlotte Perkins Gilman) – I was lucky enough to study English literature at a women’s college, where I really couldn’t get through a course without being asked to think about the voice and position of women throughout history. So I don’t know which book is the one that really raised my feminist consciousness, but if I had to choose, I would say The Yellow Wallpaper.

Strangers from a Different Shore (Ronald Takaki) – This is the sweeping historical account of Asian-American immigration to the United States from the late 19th century to 20th century. I knew virtually nothing about the context of my family’s history until I read this book.

The DaVinci Code (Dan Brown) – I had taken a long, regrettable break from reading after graduate school, and during the harried days of my first year as a mother, it was this page-turner that turned me back on to reading for pleasure. I would have one hand on the frying pan and one hand on this book, or I would sneak in a few paragraphs while my son’s back was turned. I realized that if you want to read, you honestly can make the time to do it.

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year (Anne Lamott) – Another book that I picked up as a new mother. Except I had to pick this up more than once. At first I couldn’t get into it. I lost interest when I realized it wasn’t the memoir of a “regular” mom but that of a single (never wed), recovering alcoholic mom. I couldn’t relate, I thought, and, yes, I judged her as a mother. But then one day the book clicked for me, and not only did I fall in love with Anne Lamott and her voice but I could relate to her and to all her insecurities and her indescribable love for her son.  I think that was the last time I ever thought I wouldn’t be able to relate to another mother.

Prep (Curtis Sittenfeld) – I was trying my hand at writing again and started writing this blog. And then I read Prep and I thought wow, I love this voice – I love how personal and real she allows her character, Lee, to be. We get so close to Lee that it’s painful to watch her sometimes because she can be so neurotic, but she is very real, almost audibly real. I am still struggling with my voice in blogging but Sittenfeld made me realize how authentic human voice can sound in writing.

Me Talk Pretty One Day (David Sedaris) – I hoped and expected to laugh, but I didn’t expect that I would actually relate to so many of his stories. I saw myself and my family in Sedaris and his family (scary but comforting at the same time). It was fun to be able to laugh at the things that had always been so serious or negative for me.

A Fort of Nine Towers (Qais Akbar Omar) – This is an absolutely beautiful memoir of a young man’s coming of age in Afghanistan that I believe deserves much more attention than it’s gotten. I had not read much from the Middle East/South Asia, and since then I’ve been on a quest to read more from non-American writers.

This is How You Lose Her (Junot Diaz) – I picked this up from the library soon after it first came out because it was available, surprisingly, and I wondered what the hype was all about. I had never read Junot Diaz and had no idea what to expect. I was floored by his voice and by his own personal story as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who has made it into the literary elite (i.e., respected). He speaks out against racism and sexism and is a voice for those who aren’t listened to. I don’t know if I can ask for anything more in a writer.

I always love looking at people’s bookshelves, but since I can’t go to your house, tell me what’s on yours. What have you loved, or what has touched or impacted you the most? What do you recommend?

20 thoughts on “The ideal bookshelf

    • I just looked up Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson and had no idea that Judy Blume had since come out with new books! I think she was a lifesaver since I didn’t feel comfortable talking with my parents or even friends about a lot of things…

  1. I’m becoming ever more convinced that you and I were separated at birth! Although I still haven’t actually read the whole book, an excerpt from My Ideal Bookshelf caught my eye about a year ago and I was inspired to put together one of my own:

    I can’t get enough of looking at the favorite titles of other readers and writers and was thrilled to see yours today. (By the way, if you liked Prep, I highly recommend American Wife. I really enjoyed them both!) xo

    • I was totally thinking of you, Kristen, when I wrote this post, because I remembered yours very well, and I had even picked up Wallace Stegner’s book because of your recommendation! It’s on my to-read list and I am anxious to get to it. I also just recently picked up American Wife (finally!) and can’t wait to read that one as well. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I love your list! I have been in a bit of a reading slump lately, so you are helping the reader in me to get motivated. I’ve read about half of the books on your list. I am particularly intrigued by Prep and This Is How You Lose Her. Adding them to my list now.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Shannon!

      Prep is about a small town, middle class girl who ends up at an elite prep school. Her voice is so intimate and I was able to relate so much to her – it was almost like hearing my own voice through hers.

      This is How You Lose Her is very different from anything I’ve ever read. It’s very “street” but there is something very compelling about Diaz’s voice.

      I hope you enjoy them both!

  3. So happy to see two of my favourite books on your list: The Bell Jar and The Yellow Wallpaper. I had to read The Yellow Wallpaper for a school assignment and I remember how eye-opening it was for me to read and analyse that novel. A feminist classic!

    • I’m glad to hear that you’ve enjoyed those two as well! I am planning to re-read The Bell Jar, actually. I feel as though I’ve lost so much in memory over the years…And I would love to read The Yellow Wallpaper again now that I am older. I was barely a woman when I first read it!

      Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  4. I love this post! I ran across Ideal Bookhelf on Brainpickings (Bless Maria Popova’s heart — she’s a gem) — so lovely. I love your list too, and when I get a chance I’d love to make one of my own! Right at the top would be Jane Eyre, which my mother read to me when I was young — maybe 9 or 10. For a shy, bookish child, it was the perfect read; I read it every few years and always find something new. Thanks for your generous sharing!

    • Thanks so much, Carolyn! I would definitely love to “check out” your shelf too so I’ll look forward to your list. It was hard not to put Jane Eyre on the list – I was so close to adding it. I think it was Jane Eyre that got me interested in all the Bronte sisters. That’s amazing that your mom read it to you when you were 9 or 10. I love how you grew up with such literary parents! Bedtime reading must have been a huge treat.

  5. I love the idea of exploring ourselves through the books we love to read. And I have to say, I’ve yet to tackle more than half of what’s on yours! I am seriously missing out, it would seem. I can’t believe I haven’t read This is How You Lose Her yet, considering how much I loved other works by Diaz!

    Also, I saw Kristen’s response here and remembered commenting with my own list to her post, so I cheated and checked on it. Hah! Good to know that my list would remain the same today, except I just want to make sure that the Harry Potter series, the Lord of the Rings, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Our Sister Killjoy by Ama Ata Aidoo, and Anne of Green Gables are included this time too. 🙂 Oh, and honestly, I thoroughly enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series as well because it allowed me to indulge in my fascination in Swedish culture.

    OK. That’s it. For now… (What a great post!)

    • I also loved the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series and I have never read Neil Gaiman or Ama Ata Aidoo. I will check them out!

      You’re so busy now, Justine – the reading time will come back. I’ve missed out on a lot, and I only just got back into seriously reading over the last year. So I feel like I am desperately trying to “catch up” although I know that will never happen, which is actually a good thing.

  6. GWTW, Crime & Punishment, and Wuthering Heights are all some of my favorite books! They would definitely make it on my ideal bookshelf, along with The Brothers Karamazov, Jane Eyre, The Dovekeepers, Les Miserables, and East of Eden. I’d say those books would keep me pretty happy for the rest of my life.

  7. Cecilia, I love this post. I purchased the Ideal Bookshelf a few months ago and was fascinated by the contents.

    On my bookshelf, here are my musts:
    1) Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
    2) Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
    3) A Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham
    4) Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
    5) The End Of The Affair by Graham Greene
    6) Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
    7) The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
    8) The End Of Your Life Book Club by William Schwalbe

    I also love a number of short story collections. My bookshelf is littered with works by Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Amy Hempel, and Junot Diaz.

    Fabulous post, Cecilia. I may have to piggyback on you and Kristen and write my own.

    • I love your list, Rudri, especially as I have read 6 out of the 8 books on your shelf 😉 I recently bought my first Ann Patchett book at a library sale and I’m embarrassed to say that I can’t remember which one it was, but I am now hoping that it is Bel Canto. I am also very interested in reading Somerset Maugham. I have Flannery O’Connor and Junot Diaz, and will look up Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel.

      I would LOVE to see you post about this as well!

  8. Pingback: A Re-education in literature | Only You

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