The Two Books I Wish I’d Kept

A year or so ago we culled the library bookshelves. We had to; they were overflowing. Books can take over this house very easily.

I thought I’d done a mindful, considered cull. I really thought about each book. But it’s now clear I culled two books I should have kept.  They were both books that fall into my ‘contemplation’ category: books I read, think about, read again, think some more. Books that have changed, and continue to change, how I see the world. In the case of these two books, they were among the first – one was the first – to do that for me.

The first book, the one that first made me look at the world differently, is Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I read it for the first time at sixteen or seventeen: it was published in 1974, the year I turned sixteen, so I must have found it (how?) shortly after. A deeply personal and sometimes mystical narrative of the writer’s relationship with the natural world that surrounds her home, it spoke to me at many levels. Dillard’s understanding of the natural world and the appreciation of the rhythms and cycles of life were key to my love affair with the book, but the fact it was also written by a woman was immensely important. I’d read Aldo Leopold and Thoreau and others, but there was always a small disconnect; I couldn’t project myself into them. With Dillard, I could.

I re-read the book several times in my twenties, each time understanding more, recognizing more of the spiritual aspect of it. Then I left it alone for a long time, before reading it again about a decade ago. By then I was on my second copy of it – I’d read my paperback to pieces, and when I found a hardback at a used book store, I bought it. And then last year I gave it away.

The second book is Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I suspect no other book has influenced my own approach to life as much as this one. I didn’t tackle it until my early to mid twenties, and it was the first book I read (other than my calculus textbook) where I remember recognizing as I read it that I really didn’t understand all of it, not in depth. So I read it again…and again…and again, over the next ten years. Finally, I thought I did understand it, how the search for understanding the elusive definition of quality, of what is good or not good, had become entwined with the author’s mental illness, and how recovery entailed learning to embrace and balance both the romantic and the rational. But again, my paperback was in tatters, and I thought I’d learned all I needed from it.

I wonder now why I thought I was done with them; where that hubris arose from. I have written elsewhere about how I understand the world through walking; in doing so, I create mental maps both real and unreal. The real mental maps mean that once I walk a place mindfully, I cannot get lost there, unless a very long time goes by before I am there again. The unreal are dreamt maps, dreamt walks, that overlay the real world, are different from it but always echo it. These books have been guidebooks for both my conscious and unconscious journeys. And I thought I could give them away?

I can either buy them again – they won’t break the budget, and both are still in print, and easily available used – or I can get them from the library. I think I’ll buy them. And at some level, ask their forgiveness for thinking I could navigate through this life without them.

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