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Ideal Bookshelves

A thoughtful relative gave me a copy of My Ideal Bookshelf, a collection of essays in which famous people in a variety of fields talk about the books that are most important to them. You’ll find essays from luminaries like Alice Waters and James Franco, as well as from people who are prominent in their fields, but not necessarily “famous.” The gorgeous illustrations that bring each person’s choices to life are colorful and exciting, a wonderful reminder of just how much emotional and psychological resonance physical books still hold for many people. You can learn more about the project, which is the brainchild of Jane Mount and Thessaly LaForce, at the book’s companion website, which also features many other ideal bookshelves on various themes, from Jane Austen to sci-fi, available as prints, paintings and note cards. You can even submit your own ideal bookshelf for custom design!

At first I was overwhelmed by the thought of picking only ten books that were meaningful for me–couldn’t I just have an Ideal Bookcase? But on reflection–and sober contemplation of my savings–I decided that I’d better think about it a little harder. I’ve whittled down the many, many books that have danced through my life over the years to a list of five that have a special meaning. The other ones? Well, you’ll just have to ask me about them next time you visit the library!

ideal

The Snarkout Boys & the Avocado of Death, Daniel Pinkwater.

Walter, our hero, is introduced to the art of snarking out–sneaking out of the house at night to go to the 24-hour movie theater–by his friend Winston. Walter and Winston are bored with the lack of academic challenge at their school and the tedium of their everyday lives, so when a typical night of snarking out turns into an adventure involving a missing scientist and his greatest invention, the boys are definitely up for the challenge.

This novel was the first book I’d ever read that implied there’s a lot of interesting things going on underneath the surface of everyday life. It was also the first book I’d read that criticized teachers who give tons of busywork instead of actually teaching, something to which I could, sadly, relate all too well. For good or ill, I credit Snarkout Boys for making me the contrarian adventurer I am today.

The Heidi Chronicles, Wendy Wasserstein.

Heidi Holland lives through some exciting times, but she isn’t always sure what to make of them as they pass by. Between glimpses of Heidi in her current life as a feminist art historian, the reader is treated to long scenes from various times in Heidi’s life: trying to figure out boys; discovering consciousness-raising, radical politics, and good sex; and navigating the shallow, greedy culture of 80s materialism, to name but a few. Can a determined young woman live life on her terms? Heidi Holland can, and does, but it’s not easy.

Of all the shows my college theater group produced,  Heidi Chronicles was my favorite. I had only one scene, but I went to as many rehearsals as I could so I would understand how this baffling, cultural-reference-riddled play (I had to stop and look something up in just about every line of dialogue) could ever come to life. Between the words on the page and the skillful architecture of the stage, I came to understand a lot more about art history, women’s history, and feminism. Theater really should be seen and heard, as well as read, so try the digital audio version on for size, too.

Cooking for Dummies, Bryan Miller.

Although IDG’s “Dummies” series takes a lot of good-natured ribbing for their approach, this particular title is extremely helpful. Miller’s introduction to kitchen skills covers basic tools and techniques for the beginner kitchen wizard, then moves on to simple foods, like salads and pasta, that are pretty hard to screw up. Once you’ve got those under your belt, you can move on to strategies for shopping, meal planning, and dinner parties. Miller ends the book with lists of books and resources to consult next, ensuring that you can take your cooking up to the next level, if you want. Perfect for new college grads, or anyone else who’s tired of relying on take-out and the microwave.

This book saved me from a lifetime of eating frozen dinners. I was trying to get serious about exercising and losing weight, so I thought it would be a good idea to learn to cook properly, too (go big, or go home). Miller’s book gave me the basic kitchen skills I needed and the confidence to try more advanced dishes, and I plan to give it as a gift to all the kids in my life when they’re ready to strike out on their own. This is also the very first book I ever checked out of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger.

Henry’s rare genetic anomaly randomly sends him back and forth in time; Clare’s life follows a normal, sequential pattern. Their asynchronous love affair is magical, passionate, and exciting, but also fraught with difficulty. After all, it’s exasperating when the person you love can vanish at any moment, and it’s no picnic for the vanisher, either. Is this a love story for the ages or a train wreck waiting to happen? Literary romance fans who haven’t devoured this book should bump it to the top of their lists, at once.

I’m not the sort of person who reads popular books at the same time everyone else is reading them. I made an exception, though, the year I went to library school, and everybody was swooning over this book. A time-traveling librarian? How could we notIt was the first time I’d been on the same page–literally and figuratively–with a group of friends over a book, and the fact that we were all working hard, studying hard, and partying hard together made it even more meaningful and worthwhile.

Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed.

Strayed’s collection of tough-love advice, collated from her tenure as advice columnist “Dear Sugar” on The Rumpus, is tough, tender, hilarious and heartbreaking. Strayed’s overall tone is warm and friendly, making you feel as if you’re sitting in the kitchen–or maybe a coffee shop–with the very best kind of friend: someone warm and sympathetic, but unafraid to call you on your crap, if need be. Letter-writers bare their souls on topics from the loss of a child to professional envy of a friend, and Strayed answers them all the even-tempered wisdom that is hard-won by those who have seen, and survived, many of life’s more unpleasant aspects.

When I grow up, I want to be just like Cheryl Strayed. She’s endured a great deal in her life, but she didn’t let it make her bitter. She writes with both wisdom and humor. She knows when cuss words make a piece of writing work, and when to use gentler language.  And she genuinely cares about the people who write to her, and wants to help them achieve their highest potential. Those aren’t bad things to aspire to, methinks, and I ask myself sometimes, “What would Cheryl say?” when I ponder my own dilemmas. Hopefully keeping this book handy will keep me grounded and sensible–but not too sensible–as I navigate my 40s.

Your turn: what books would be on your ideal bookshelf? Tell us about a book that means a lot to you, or reminds you of a specific time in your life.

–Leigh Anne

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