Wednesday, November 21, 2012

My Ideal Bookshelf

When I first heard about My Ideal Bookshelf, I was immediately hooked. Here's what the website has to say about this book:

The books that we choose to keep and display—let alone read—can say a lot about who we are and how we see ourselves. In My Ideal Bookshelf, one hundred leading cultural figures...reveal the books that matter to them most—books that reflect their obsessions and ambitions and in many cases helped them find their way in the world. 

Original paintings by artist Jane Mount showcase the selections, with colorful, hand-lettered book spines and occasional objets d’art from the contributors’ personal bookshelves. The paintings are accompanied by first-person commentary drawn from interviews with editor Thessaly La Force, which touch on everything from the choice of books to becoming a writer to surprising sources of inspiration. This exquisite collection provides rare insight into the creative process and artistic development of today’s most intriguing writers, innovators, and visionaries.

When I read this, I have to admit that it really made me think. I'm no artist or innovator, and I'm certainly not a visionary, but I do have favorite books-- books that changed my life, books that made me who I am today, and books that show what sort of person I am. And-- like all other book bloggers-- I'm definitely not against sharing the books that have meant so much to me over the years.

So I thought, why not? Why not make my own Ideal Bookshelf? I just happened to have an empty bookshelf. How long would it take me to gather together the books that "say me" and put them on that shelf? Well... longer than I'd originally anticipated. I kept remembering, eyeballing my bookcases, making substitutions, remembering something else, making more substitutions.... But I now have my Ideal Bookshelf, the shelf filled with books that other people can look at and be able to glimpse into my soul and see the sort of person that I am. It just so happens that there are twenty-five books on my shelf, and twenty-five just happens to have been the number on my very first library card. How cool is that?

Want to take a look at Cathy's Ideal Bookshelf? Here it is---

Click on photo to view full size!

Here is the list of all the books on my shelf, in order from left to right as you see them in the photo above. The skinny green book lying horizontally on the shelf is listed last...

  1. The Swashbucklers by James Robert Parish and Don E. Stanke. I had to have a book that represents my love of movies, and what better book than the one that's all about my first real film passion-- swashbucklers, especially the ones with Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, and Stewart Granger. Pirates, treasure, swordplay, bravery, humor, wit... ahhh! Now that I come to think of it, I loved the soundtracks to these old movies so much that it spawned yet another passion: collecting movie soundtracks!
  2. The Needlepoint Book by Jo Ippolito Christensen. I also needed a book that represents my love of stitching, and this book is my bible for all sorts of exotic needlepoint stitches. I refer to it often, and just flipping through the pages can bring back memories of past projects.
  3. James Tissot: Victorian Life/Modern Love by Marshall and Warner. Art is another passion of mine, and I had a very difficult time choosing which of my many art books would have shelf space. I have a love of portraits, but I soon discovered that my books on Sargent and Lawrence were way too big for the shelf. Tissot is far from being an also-ran, however. His eye and technique are drop-dead gorgeous and provide such a vivid mirror to the age he lived in. He also painted a portrait of a man in a railway carriage circa 1880, and that long-dead subject is a ringer for my husband, Denis!
  4. Town Tours in Britain is a huge three-ring binder filled with treasure. I found it in a huge old building in Manchester, England, that was filled with salvage. Around the corner from a room filled with Edwardian fireplace surrounds were a few shelves filled with books. And there was this book. It is filled with information on roughly three dozen villages and towns in England that are full of history and perfect for walking and exploring. Each town is one pamphlet in the binder. One side with information on specific buildings in that place, the other a beautifully artistic map of the town. I wanted that book so badly, but it was HUGE and I knew I didn't have room for it in my luggage. My niece Karen went back after we returned home, bought the book, and sent it to me for Christmas. Denis and I have used some of those maps on subsequent trips to the UK. It's one of the best gifts I've ever received.
  5. Song and Garden Birds of North America by the National Geographic Society. Speaking of gifts, this book not only represents my love of birds, but was a gift from my mother when I was about eight. Beautiful photographs that I pored over for hours, little records in a pocket in the back that played each bird's characteristic song. This book really helped me learn how to identify birds.
  6. A Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles in Arizona by Thomas C. Brennan and Andrew T. Holycross. Normally I'd want my love of furry critters represented, but I really don't have a reference book for those. They're rather easy to identify most of the time. This book has been invaluable in identifying lizards that I discover in town or out on the desert, and yes, it's also helped me identify a snake or two!
  7. Sonoran Desert Wildflowers by Richard Spellenberg. Birds, critters... I can't possibly leave out wildflowers. I'm not one for gardening, opting for plants, trees and shrubs that thrive in the desert... and on benign neglect. But I absolutely love wildflowers, and nothing pleases me more to be walking out in the desert or up in the mountains and finding a flower that I can't identify-- until I get out my reference books!
  8. 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue is a 1970s reprint of a book printed in England in 1811. It lists all the common slang of the day, and can be alternately embarrassing, hilarious, and enlightening. (For example, I never call any woman an "old bat" any more. Yikes!) A shelf with no dictionary? I love language too  much!
  9. Album of Horses by Marguerite Henry. Around the age of five, I began reading "real books" with chapters and everything. I was thrilled and quite proud of myself. Marguerite Henry's books about horses enthralled me for hours on end, and Wesley Dennis's illustrations are superb. I am a horse lover; have been for years. I can tell you exactly where I was in 1973 when Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes.
  10. Thornton Burgess Animal Stories were my first real favorite when I was five. Burgess may have anthropomorphized animals, but he could tell a wonderful story, and he gave children a lot of information about wildlife. I've always loved animals, and Thornton Burgess's many books fed my five-year-old's fascination. (Now that I'm older and bigger, I just go out hunting the real thing with my camera.)
  11. Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder was another childhood addiction. When Thornton Burgess wasn't telling me tales about critters, I was following Laura and her family across the Great Plains. This was my first taste of reading any sort of history, and I loved it.
  12. The City of Joy by Dominique LaPierre is my eye-opening book. The book that made me bone-chillingly aware of how other people live on this planet. When LaPierre told me of a poverty-stricken woman in Calcutta who secretly went to an abortionist because she knew her family was already starving, I had no earthly clue what would happen to her. The woman died, and every scrap of her body was sold off: transplants, cosmetics testing, everything... including her skeleton to a school of medicine. It's been about thirty years since I read that book. That chapter in and of itself still has the power to make me sick, to make me cry, to make me see the world in a different way.
  13. Land of the Firebird by Suzanne Massie is a superb book about Tsarist Russia in all its beauty and all its ugliness. This is the sort of history I love. It's not about dates and battles and political manifestos. It's about how the Russian people really lived in that era. (The rich in St. Petersburg had double-hung windows. The space between the two windows was filled with sand during the long, frigid winters as insulation. It was dark all the time, so why open the curtains? Stay warm!) This book better than any other represents my love of cultural history.
  14. Edith Wharton by R.W.B. Lewis came to me at a time in my life when I was fighting severe depression. I'd read Wharton's Custom of the Country and was blown away by how good it was. I wanted to know more about the writer, and Lewis did the job beautifully. At a time when I was at my lowest and feeling completely worthless, Wharton-- through Lewis-- showed me how very similar we were in so many respects. Wharton had her own long period of depression and unhappiness, but at a much older age than most, she found happiness. If Edith Wharton could do it, I could, too. I think one of the greatest things the right book at the right time can do is to show us that we are not alone.
  15. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain whisked me away to England and France during World War I. Vera Brittain was a nurse, and like so many other women she knew, she lost all the men most dear to her in a long and utterly senseless war. As I read her memoir, I felt her pain, her outrage, and I feel it still.
  16. West With the Night by Beryl Markham is a marvelous book about a woman I admire. She was the first aviator-- man or woman-- to fly west across the Atlantic (the much more difficult journey, by the way). Later on in life she became a renowned trainer of race horses. Not bad for a child allowed to run wild in Africa, eh? She seems to have laughed at anyone who told her she couldn't do something-- especially if they said it was because she was a woman. She was a bit of a swashbuckler, was Beryl.
  17. Thoreau's Journals edited by Odell Shepard. Journals have always intrigued me, and this isn't the only book on my shelf that shows I like knowing what's going on in another person's head. I always had the feeling that I should like Henry David Thoreau. After all, we're both nature lovers, right? But whenever I tried to read anything like Walden Pond, I'd go to sleep. I am so glad I found this small edition of his journals edited by Odell Shepard! In his journals, Thoreau came to life for me in ways  that he never did in his published writings. In particular, I remember an entry in which Thoreau tells about an ancient tree being chopped down. If you ever get a chance to read it, try not to cry. I dare you.
  18. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson-- who better to show my love of poetry? With her eccentric behavior, her poetic shorthand, and her fluid, vivid, perfect descriptions, she's my favorite poet. I'll just bet that doesnt' set well with the likes of Browning, Keats, Coleridge, Frost, and Neruda! "I'll tell you how the Sun rose-- A Ribbon at a time...."
  19. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë was the first time I identified so completely with a character even though, physically, we're nothing alike. Sometimes Jane is so wordy that I want to shake her hard enough to make her teeth rattle, but I'd never give into the temptation. She'd never let me get away with it!
  20. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald shows that, when FSF was "on", he could write more beautifully than almost anyone going. Trouble is, he had a few too many extracurricular activities and couldn't concentrate on his gift the way he should've. Like that doesn't remind me of anyone! Every time I think of this book, I remember the feeling of intense longing that came over me. FSF weaving his spell....
  21. East of Eden by John Steinbeck is another of those Right Book Right Time novels. I read this for the first time during another bout of depression, and when I came to the "freedom of choice" chapter, it was as though Steinbeck had removed the scales from my eyes. Once I read that, I could never go back to being the person I'd been before. Now that's powerful writing!
  22. Joshua Son of None by Nancy Freedman has to represent my passion for a bit of SciFi, a bit of time travel, a bit of science-run-amok. I still remember bursting into tears at "the reveal." I once mentioned to someone online that I had a copy of this book, and he offered me a lot of money for it. As you can see, the book is still in my possession.
  23. Shogun by James Clavell represents my love of huge, sweeping historical novels set in foreign lands. Clavell is responsible for my interest in Japanese history. Books are good when they make you think, when they teach you new things, and when they make you reach out to yet more books to feed your hunger for knowledge (and for well-told tales).
  24. The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson is here to represent my love of mysteries. You knew there'd have to be at least one, didn't you? In this case, I chose a mystery with a setting strong enough to be included in the cast of characters. That it's also filled with a fantastic story, wonderful characters, and quite a bit of humor certainly doesn't hurt either.
  25. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge represents my love of the English Romantic poets. What a wonderful story Coleridge tells in this poem. "Weave a circle 'round him thrice, And close your eyes with holy dread, For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise." Oops. Right poet, wrong poem! (I quoted that from memory by the way.) The English Romantic poets certainly knew how to use language to weave a spell 'round me!

That's it, for good or ill-- the shelf of books that shows who I am. Ask me to do this again next month and you'd see a few of the same books, but many would be different. I've been reading with a passion for too long to be able to comfortably limit myself to one small shelf. My books should change with my moods, don't you think?

And what about you? What would your ideal bookshelf look like???


  1. I bet that did take a while. I'd really have to think about what to add to my shelf. I loved looking at your picks.

    1. It does take a while, and a lot of thought, but the end result is very satisfying. I don't know why-- especially when I could easily change it all around...AGAIN! :-)

  2. Cathy - One thing that strikes me about your ideal shelf is its variety. I'm so impressed with the diversity of books you have there. And I love the fact that you've included some Laura Ingalls Wilder. I probably would include her too, as well as some Agatha Christie. As to the rest? I'll have to think about that. What a great meme that would make, among other things.

    1. Yes, it would most definitely be a wonderful meme, Margot!

  3. Cathy, thanks for sharing your Ideal Bookshelf (and yourself).

    I'm struck by the fact that there are very few books that would overlap on our shelves and yet we often have the same tastes in books.

    What an interesting exercise!

    1. That's one of the fascinating things about reading and readers-- we can take very different paths to much the same destination. And think of all the enjoyment we've had along the way with all these marvelous books!

  4. Definitely Jane Eyre for sure. Maybe The Painted Veil...I admire your list, it is a very personal thing to share :)

    1. You're right, it is personal. I don't share a lot of my "inner workings" with people, and I thought this was a good way to do so. Those with eyes can appreciate what I'm sharing; those that don't, won't. :-)

  5. Wow, what a brilliant question - I am going to have to ponder this now. I really want to make myself an ideal bookshelf, with all the books that really mean something to me on it. Sigh. If only I had the space. One day though. Mine would have a good mix of books I think. Everything from Freddie and the Enormouse (a childhood favourite) to THe Day of the Triffids. Jane Eyre would feature. Rebeccaby Daphne du Maurier might take pride of place. What a great idea!

    1. I certainly thought it was when I read about the book. My mind just wouldn't let go of the idea. I'm glad you like it, too, Becky! :-)

  6. I am so impressed with this list of favorite books, most of which I haven't heard of or read. But what is fascinating is how many of those books helped you develop in your thinking about the world in so many ways, from how people live to learning about the natural world, animals and plant life.

    Your list and comments are reminders of how important are books in our learning process and in expanding our horizons.

    What a big shout out for reading! Everything! Great post.

    1. Thank you, Kathy. I debated long and hard about narrowing this down to five or ten books, but in the end I chose it to be the length of a real bookshelf because I wanted to be able to share all the different kinds of books that went into the making of me. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  7. And, this is the second time that a post here reminds me of my Russian/Polish/Jewish grandparents who fled czarist Russia in 1907, running from pogroms and extreme poverty.

    Another person who was born around that time told of wearing potato sacks, as his family was too poor to purchase clothing in the same time period in Russia.

    Land of the Firebird sounds interesting.

    1. Land of the Firebird IS interesting. Fascinating even. Massie writes so beautifully that you can see what she's describing. And she tells both sides of the tale: the beauty surrounding the rich, and the grinding ugliness that the poor had to endure.

  8. I'd have to think about it quite a bit. But love that you put West With the Night on your book shelf; I'd put that too. While at it, how about Shackleton? The Endurance is likely a must! Good list Cathy.

    1. Thanks! At another time I would include Shackleton. There came a point when I had to make myself stop fiddling with the books and just write the post!


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