When people ask what my hobbies are, only two ever surface: books and the outdoors. Every facet about books. Every nook and cranny about being outside.
Reading is the most steadfast companion of my life. It is a passion I enjoy both publicly and privately. Some books I love to discuss with friends, sharing favorite moments, dissecting writing styles. And others are too precious to share. They are mine. Selfishly. Intimately.
I write a lot about the outdoors on this blog, but not a lot about books. So here you go. Here’s a bunch of books and what they mean to me.
1. The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
This was my favorite book growing up. Yes, there was Harry Potter. Yes, there was Inkheart. Yes, there were dozens of other fantasy series I could list off, each which sucked me into a vast and different world. But this was one of the first realistic fiction books I adored, and it set the tone for much of my future reading. I liked books that were sad. I liked narrators that felt cornered by life, pushed into action because they felt like they had no other choice. I liked books where people died.
I would give a lot of money to read this book again for the very first time.
2. Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bollick
I like reading about lone female authors. The choices they made, the way they navigated their own entrapping labyrinths. The more I read about them, the less I fear being alone. Because you’re not alone. Not really. You have parents and sibling and friends, coworkers and acquaintances and strangers you see on the streets that you exchange a passing nod with. But there is something about being single that feels lonely, even if only because that’s how the world tells you to feel. Reading books about older single women gives me comfort because one day that could be me. Being “alone” for my life is something I am always thinking about and adjusting to. Some days it feels easier than others.
3. Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us, Kafka wrote. And this is it. This is that axe. Sharp and strong and brutal. This book holds the brand to your skin and forces you to look at the skin as it bubbles. No movement, only screams.
I remember finishing this book in Hawaii, sitting on the porch of our rented yurt, feeling horrified and grateful and sad all at once. There is a type of gratitude knowing that some strains of suffering will never be yours. You will never know that type of pain. What privilege.
The abject horror of the AIDS crisis is nearly unfathomable to me. But some days I try. I try to think about what it must’ve felt like to live through those harrowing days, to throw your friend’s ashes upon the White House lawn and know that your ashes could be next.
All the talent. All the love. Gone. All gone.
4. Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes
I was standing in the young adult section of the library in a small town in Pennsylvania. Most of the time I don’t get books from the YA section, but I still love to stand there and brush my fingers across the spines and remember when I was in high school and how libraries were a magical experience, how every book had a chance to alter my world, and I could get everything and nothing, and my parents would never ask, and that was perfect because it was my own delight, my own secret world just for me, just for me.
As I stood there, a teenage boy entered the room. He grabbed a book of anime and then turned to me and pointed to a novel on the shelf. If you’re looking for something, he said to me, I recommend this one. That was pretty much the extent of our conversation. But I got the book. This book. And it felt like this boy had given me a diary to his life, that this book was expressing everything he never told anyone. But he had told me.
It must be difficult to grow up in a small town. I wonder if the library was his magical place too, the place where he felt most alive, most independent.
I never saw him again.
5. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
This book made me ugly cry. So loud and unabashed that I worried my neighbors could hear. This book is unflinchingly, unrelentingly sad, and I love it. It is still on my bucket list to take a picture on Lispenard Street.
6. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger
Last fall, at an outdoors symposium, a woman told me that if she had a million dollars she would build a commune in the Adirondacks because she felt that people were losing their sense of community. God, I wanted that woman to like me. I don’t think she did. At 26, bouncing from job to job, that’s something I deeply miss. Roots. Community. Home. What a primal desire it is, and how sad it is that we no longer know how to forge those connections.
7. The Round House by Louise Erdrich
I read this book in Montana. On the outskirts of Glacier National Park, I’d park my car in the woods, set up my folding table and soccer-mom chair, and read while watching the sun set over the mountains. It is the first book I can remember reading by a Native American author. I was 24 then.
It was rather perfect. Reading this book about Native American struggles by a Native American woman in a place where Native Americans were squeezed out. Driving through Blackfeet territory was fresh in my mind, and I was disappointed in myself for how little I contemplated the modern Native American experience. I vowed to do better.
This is probably sacrilegious, but here are the last lines of the book, which are 100% amazing and perfect: “On every one of my childhood trips that place was always a stop for ice cream, coffee and a newspaper, pie. It was always what my father called the last leg of the journey. But we did not stop this time. We passed over in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever. We just kept going.”
8. The Anatomy of Being by Shinji Moon
This a perfect book of poetry. I’ve taken this book with me all over the globe because just knowing that this slim black book is tucked into my backpack is enough to keep me afloat. This book is perfect because it found me at a time when I needed it. I often think that happens. That art will save you precisely when you are drowning.
Shinji was one of the original tumblr poets, if such a thing exists. She posted regularly, and then she published this book, and then she disappeared from the Internet. I like that I don’t know anything about her anymore. I like that she is younger than me and enormously talented. I like that this book is hard to find and in that way it is like my own personal secret, a word-perfect treasure I am guardian of and can dole out to whom I please.
Wherever she is, I hope she is doing OK. I hope she is still writing.
9. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Some of the best books are those that make you pause and reexamine your life through a different lens. After reading this book, I don’t look at trees the same way. Because, yes, they are trees. But they are also forest giants who talk to one another, and who have seen the rise and fall of civilizations, and who are cloaked in mystery like another canopy of leaves that no microscope, no formula, can penetrate.
The other day on a hike with fifth graders, I told the kids that as smart as humans are, we have no idea how to create wood. None. Whatsoever. We can create titanium and construct skyscrapers and build computers, but making wood is beyond us. Wood. One of the best building materials. Something we take for granted every day of our lives. The earth has so much to teach us. We know nothing. The kids thought a lot about that and then began imagining what the world would be like if we could grow wood in a lab. We would never have to cut down trees, they told me. Imagine what the woods would be like, they said. Sometimes kids are really cool.
10. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke translated by Stephen Mitchell
This writing is the closest to holiness I know. This book. This translation. Rilke’s changed many people’s lives, and I am no exception. I never lend out my copy.