Wild Books I Have Known « Once & Future

Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

February 25, 2011

Wild Books I Have Known

Steph at Bella’s Bookshelves recently published a lovely post about “37 books that I’ve known and loved enough to feel a sense of familiarity and affection when I see them on my shelves.” It got me to thinking about my own personal reading attachments, especially in light of the fact that for the last few weeks all I’ve been able to bring myself to read is Frank Herbert’s Dune chronicles, for probably the 10th time.  A devoted reader is lucky when on that rare occasion a book grips her enough to really get lost in it, forming an attachment for life that’s hard to describe in terms of any other media, except perhaps film.

In my own experience, I have only really fallen in love with one or two books every couple of years.  Even that, though, amounts to quite a number of books – so I thought I’d offer an even more specific list.  I was thinking about what books formed me. Not “which books were my favorites” or “which books are the best”, but which books really and completely seized me and changed the way I thought, or changed the direction of my life.  I look at them, and have to wonder: those people who don’t read – and there are a lot of them – what forms them? Because god knows who I would be without books. Nothing like me. And god knows who I would be without these specific works.

What about you?  What are the books that built you?

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

My mother read this book to me for the first time when I was six, and it terrified me. I don’t remember being terrified – I remember being a little bit alarmed by Fenris Ulf – but apparently I was alarmed enough that my mum stopped reading at this point and didn’t come back to it for the rest of the year.

But she did eventually read them all to me, and then I read them again myself, and again, and again, and again. I was so convinced that Narnia was a real place and that with enough determination I could get there that I absolutely obsessed night and day over it. I read the books in painstaking detail looking for clues about how to get there, or evidence that The Last Battle was in fact a forged work by the White Witch designed to fool us into thinking Narnia wasn’t there anymore so that we (read: clever and adventurous children like myself) would stop showing up. I had every bit of Narnia paraphernalia you could name, lions were my favorite animal, and I even tried to read Lewis’s sci-fi in the hopes that they contained more clues to the true fate and location of Narnia. They, for the record, did not.

I don’t remember giving up on Narnia until I was into grade six – and even then it was only because I moved to Calgary and my co-Narniite (Livia, my then-best friend) moved to London. I would have been 10 by then – so Narnia seized me for about four solid years.

Dune by Frank Herbert

I read Dune the summer between grade eight and nine – all the rest of the series too. This was a mind-blowing experience. Call it egoism, but I seemed to have decided that becoming an omniscient, timeless, infinitely-wise super-being was something immediately within my grasp. Not only that, I was sure that the route to Wisdom was in A) all the adult reading I could cram into my head B) transient, mind-altering ingestibles (i.e. the Spice, or chocolate covered coffee beans) and C) totally obsessive introspection and/or navel gazing. I also spent a good deal of that summer teaching myself tricks of self-control, like moving only one muscle with the exclusion of all others or inducing sleep at any time or place (in myself, of course. I was big on breathing excersizes.)

I also fell in love with Duncan Idaho and another boy on my soccer team whose name was (coincidence? I don’t think so.) also Duncan.

Mostly, I read anything which I could pretend had “value” (i.e. no more pulp!) and thought about it until my head hurt.

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

It was Kurt Vonnegut that made me want to become a writer. Not that I had any intention of writing what he did – although I kept a journal trying to record amusing, cynical and anecdotal observations about the real world – but he gave me a different idea of what writing could be. It wasn’t just disembodied narrative, a story told by anyone to anyone. You could be a character, the teller, and pour yourself into the reader with great effect. He also taught me irony, deadpan and sarcasm – oh how I absorbed them.  Thank god by the time I read Vonnegut I was beyond obsessing over the contents of a book – although I did recognize myself as a Bokononist for some time. He was the first I read where it was the form of the book, the writing – not the story – that impressed me.

Dreams Underfoot by Charles de Lint

This is one of Charles de Lint’s many books – and for whatever reason, the one that stabbed me in the heart. This book precipitated me leaving home. The year before I went through a very short Once and Future King phase – a book which I debated adding to this list but left off because I can’t quantify what it meant to me as well – in which I was going to be a filmmaker and my magnum opus was going to be a three-part O&F film. I still have a script I did up of the first half of The Sword and the Stone. For whatever reason I had become disillusioned with my film-making skills and was desperate for something more to my talents. In Dreams Underfoot I thought I found it.

I was going to be a gypsy, a transient, a busker and an artist as well as a part-time waitress. I couldn’t pick a favorite character in Newford (Jilly) so I wanted to be all of them. I really just suddenly identified very strongly with a lifestyle, a subculture, a people. I picked up violin again and taught myself to fiddle and worked out a comprehensive plan for hitting the road in a permanent sense. It changed my fashion sense, my outlook and my expectations. Finding these people made my heart soar. The only real letdown was when I finally got to Toronto and didn’t find a single like mind.

Good News for a Change by David Suzuki & Holly Dressel

This was a David Suzuki book I bought on a whim because I was newly into “collecting” books and, at Nicholas Basbane’s suggestion, felt my “collection” needed a theme. I was watching a lot of The Nature of Things at the time and for whatever reason decided I wanted a science/nature/environment themed collection. This was in hardcover, and the last copy available at Book City, so I bought it.

At the time I had re-enrolled at the University of Toronto (after a previous stint studying Celtic Studies under the aforementioned influence of DeLint)  and was planning on doing a degree in French Literature to pursue my love of Dumas (you’ll notice his works are not on this list – I thought about adding them, but while I adore them, they haven’t influenced me much. They are simply the most indulgent works of literature to my tastes.) I planned to pursue a career in translation.

This book changed everything. I had always been politically-minded and prone to “debate”. My mother had been leaning on me to become a politician or a lawyer since I was ten. It had simply never occurred to me to take her seriously because I saw myself as an “artist” or at least “artistic” and felt I belonged more in the humanities. Literature, film, music. That kind of thing. But Good News framed everything for me in a whole new context: there was a battle going on out there to save every aspect of culture, science, environment and society and there were good people who just needed more bodies. There were very practical and reasonable things that needed doing and nobody seemed willing to step up and do them.

More than that, I had that epiphany. I was not particularly artistic. I have a talent for music, but this is really more to do with math and pattern recognition. It has more to do with logic than art.  Every degree or project I had taken up designed to refine my life as an artist had flopped miserably. But what I was really good at was arguing. Fighting for things. Seizing the moral high ground and strong-arming the world so that it went my way. Well as it happens, these are very useful skills for activists.  Why my career in the Environmental Sciences never went far is another story, but Good News catapulted me into four long years of an Environment & Geography degree.

Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins & Hunter Lovins

Paul Hawken and the Lovinses – this belong with Good News but they’re different entities. If Good News woke me up, this one gave me a specific direction. Unlike most activists, I am not a bleeding-heart lefty. I definitely believe in socialism, but for economic reasons. I am an environmentalist, but because I have a bee in my bonnet about efficiency, not because I think trees have rights. This is what kept me away from politics or activism for so long – I hated the way these issues had been marginalized, supported by the “fringe” and made irrelevant to people actually just trying to live their lives.  Natural Capitalism became the book I most loaned to other people, and formed by philosophy of economics, environment and living for quite some time.

A Gentle Madness by Nicolas Basbanes

Having spent much of my twenties in the thrall of the politics of the environment, you might wonder how I got here today, a staunch and committed bookseller, collector, and blogger.  Thank Basbanes.  He was responsible for turning me onto my environmental degree as well, but once I’d come out the other side of that degree I found myself still more committed to my books than to some causes.  I’d always read books and always collected books, but it wasn’t until the reading and collecting reached a certain critical mass that I realized I was never getting out of it, and I wouldn’t be happy if I ever did.

Later books of his like Every Book Its Reader and A Splendor of Letters kept nudging me more and more into the book hole.  I became as interested in the reader as in the book.  I became interested in collectors, collections, publication histories and bibliographies.  I realized this was a whole life, not a hobby, and, once again, returned to school to study Book History.  Unlike the frustration and disillusionment I’d encountered during my environment degree, I found myself encouraged and rewarded continually in Book History.  And, after all, wasn’t this what I’d really loved all along – books?  Many books caught my attention and enthralled me during my life, but Basbanes has the honour of being the writer that made me think about the meta-book, the world of being bookish.  And the longer I live here, the more it is my home.

9 thoughts on “Wild Books I Have Known”

  1. Steph says:

    This is an excellent post. I love stuff like this! Very thoughtful, and it’s so cool to read how books have changed a life. I especially love how Dune and A Gentle Madness (I picked up a copy of Dune a few years ago but haven’t yet read it and Basbanes’s books have been on my wishlist for eons!) effected change or caused you to do things (like practice “mind tricks”!). 🙂

    I’d have to do some serious thinking, beyond being deeply affected by a book, to discover which have actually caused me to take action or change the way I do something.

    Hmmm.

    PS. Thanks for linking to me!

  2. Steph says:

    PS. Can you still do that? Can you make yourself sleep anywhere? I need to learn that!!

    1. Charlotte says:

      Well, now I carry the special fatigue that only can be found in the pregnant mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old, so yes. 😉

      1. Steph says:

        Oh. Ha! No thanks! 🙂

  3. Steph says:

    Okay, sorry but another PS. Your Vonnegut part reminded me of a Charles Bukowski poem I once read that I’ve never forgotten and that has formed my writing (though to be honest sometimes I ignore the advice and sometimes I become indignant when I read it): http://oldpoetry.com/opoem/show/43542-Charles-Bukowski-So-You-Want-To-Be-A-Writer.

    Elizabeth Gilbert and Carol Shields are others who have deeply affected me regarding writing advice and how I want to write. In the end, though, ultimately I find that you often forget the stuff the people you so greatly admire teach you. You end up writing whatever comes out of you. I have to keep going back to them to be reminded.

    1. Charlotte says:

      Oooh, that’s great advice: especially “if it if it doesn’t come bursting out of you/in spite of everything,/don’t do it.” Now I feel especially suited to blogging/journalism rather than fiction/storytelling. 🙂 I can just never keep a good rant contained.

      1. Steph says:

        I love that about you. At least they’re intelligent rants. I think they’re exciting.

  4. Jason says:

    Good post, thanks!
    For me it’s the Bible, without doubt. I have not found it lacking in being a sufficient and foundational guide to God and matters of life (with proper interpretation) – no matter where I’m at.
    And I’m inclined to comment on your childhood experience, Charlotte – Aslan is still on the prowl, he’s just known by a different name here. 🙂

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