The idea for this article came from reading a charming little book, My Ideal Bookshelf, edited by Thessaly La Force and illustrated by Jane Mount. I first came across the book in the Huntsville, Alabama, main library when I was back there for a few months helping my dear old mother move out of independent living. For the book, about a hundred people were asked to “select a small shelf of books that represent you—the books that have changed your life, that have made you who you are today, your favorite favorites.” The very last page of the book (on what’s called the pastedown) is an invitation to readers to send in their own “ideal bookshelf.” At the time, I thought I might do that when I got back home—but, of course, I had lots of catch-up kind of things to do when I got home, so I never did it. Then I picked up a copy of the book at Big Island BookBuyers in Hilo the last time I was over there, and it got me to thinking about it again. And not long ago I wrote an article for this blog called “What I’m Reading Now,” and some of the feedback I got was from old friends who were grateful for certain books I’d recommended to them in the past. (As someone who has owned three bookstores, I’ve recommended a lot of books!)
So here are six books that meant the most to me as I was developing into an independent adult.
My girlfriend at Huntsville High School, Cathy Earnest, told me that her Uncle Danny, whom she rightly adored, had recommended The Crock of Gold by James Stephens. Stephens was part of the Irish Renaissance, a period of writing that produced James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and others. Luckily the Huntsville Library had a copy and even more luckily it was a hardback with all the original color illustrations. Don’t even think of reading a paperback copy of this marvelous book. The illustrations by Thomas Mackenzie are as important as the writing. I realize I’ve told you next to nothing about the book, except read it.
I’d started reading Alan Watts while I was in high school, and one of his books that influenced me the most was The Joyous Cosmology which describes his use of hallucinogenic drugs. It led to the fateful day when Cathy and I went off in the woods on Huntsville Mountain and spent the next several hours “watching the glories roll by” as Neil Young would say, or “changing our minds” as Michael Pollan says. On the way home, Cathy said that she wanted her mother to try it. I told her I didn’t think it was a good idea to even tell her mother, but I appreciated her sentiment.
That night I picked up the book Starmaker by Olaf Stapledon (which had been patiently waiting on my bookshelf, as books do) and read the Preface. I realized that the book was going to mean so much to me that I’d better read it with a dictionary. It had a lot of words I didn’t know, and I wanted to get everything out of the book that the author put in. (Ignore the fact that Dover Publications bound the book together with his earlier book, Last and First Men. Starmaker is the one to read!) It took my conception of how big the universe could be and reduced it to the size of a grain of sand—and gave me a much bigger conception of the universe.
The book that pointed me away from psychedelics and toward sitting in meditation was Be Here Now by Baba Ram Dass. It was so important to me that it was in the very first section as soon as you walked in the door of my first bookstore (A Good Book Store, opened when I was 19). In the very next section was Selling Water by the River by Jiyu Kennett, the woman who would eventually ordain me a Zen monk. The beating heart of the entire book is a short section describing how to do pure meditation, and the jist of it all is in these words, “…neither trying to think nor trying not to think. Just sitting with no deliberate thought is the important aspect of Zazen.” (Oddly and frustratingly, the most recent edition of the book completely leaves out this section.)
When I first went to Shasta Abbey in 1976 (and became ordained as a lay Buddhist) the person who ordained me recommended And There Was Light by Jacques Lusseyran. Lusseyran went blind early in his life and never took it negatively. He tells his amazing story which includes working with the French Resistance in WW2, and being captured and put in a concentration camp. That was one of the biggest lessons in my life, that whatever happened to me, I should take it positively—and thereby get the gift of that moment.
Those are my “ideal bookshelf” titles. I would love to hear about yours.