Like most, I pick up books to suit the mood and moment. Many times, when I just want some entertainment, a Lee Child, John Sandford, or Bernard Cornwell novel fits the bill. But, and this is not an indictment of those authors, the plots and writing soon fade from memory. Their works are the cheese dip and the cheesecake, not the entrée. They are not the books I recall while sitting on the porch before dawn. Nor are they the books I want to press into a nephew’s hand, saying, “Read this, it is important. It will take you places, make you want to upend your life.”
Here are 10 books from the past year (numbered by chronology, not preference) that meant the most to me. Books that took me out of my small world, connected me to the broader course of humanity, and made me glad to have had the experience. Works that were either artfully written, engrossing, or informative … or, in a few instances, all three at the same time.
- Desert Solitaire (Edward Abbey, 1968). I was surprised one cold winter day to realize I had not read this oft-mentioned work. So, this time last year, I got myself to the Book Eddy in Knoxville and picked up a copy. This book is a beautiful, haunting, angry, and often funny work on the desert Southwest, a region Abbey feared was changing too fast, one I fear he would now find gone. Every sentence is a Wiki-quote.
- Southern Harvest (Clare Leighton, 1942). Based on the English illustrator’s time spent in North Carolina, it contains vignettes of rural Southern life. Most but not all pieces are sensitively written and wonderfully illustrated. I loved her woodcuts so much that Cindy located a numbered print for my Christmas present.
- Grey Seas Under (Farley Mowat, 1958). This book sat on my shelf for 20 years before I took it down to read. Sometimes you just know that if given time you will get around to a book, so why rush the experience? This is the story of an Atlantic salvage tug and the men who operated her off the coast of Canada from 1930 to 1948. It’s the absolutely riveting history of a ship masquerading as an edge-of-the-seat thriller. These sailors and their vessel had more of what it takes than any group of men you are ever likely to meet: daredevil rescues amid towering seas in icy waters day after day (and even more often, night after night), year after year — everyday heroics by uncommon people that make you proud to be of the same species.
- Cræft (Alexander Langlands, 2017). An antidote to the mass age, Cræft (not to be confused with “craft”) looks at the broad-based skills needed to survive in the old world. Putting up hay in medieval Europe, for example, required not only the knowledge to cut, cure, and store feed, but also to make and maintain a scythe, plant the forage, save the seed…. Today, we tend to learn, if we can be bothered, just a limited part of any craft. This book is a humbling reminder of how we have specialized ourselves into irrelevance yet still claim to be masters.
- Localism in the Mass Age (Mark Mitchell and Jason Peters, Eds., 2018). Styled as the Front Porch Republic Manifesto, it is a compendium of some of today’s more interesting writers on localism. This one has introduced me to a whole range of authors who suck away my spare time.
- The Last Grain Race (Eric Newby, 1956). Here’s another one picked up at the Book Eddy, a small, expertly curated out-of-print bookstore. I loved this book so much that I sought out a first edition (found cheap in Australia). But, first I read the Penguin orange-cover paperback. The plot: the author chucks advertising career at the tender age of 18 and signs on to sail on one of the last tall-masted ships, leaving out of Belfast for Australia to pick up grain, in 1938. A there-and-back-again tale about his stoic Finnish officers (who spoke little to no English), a polyglot crew, lice, rats, fights, clambers up rotten rigging in pitching seas and howling winds — all played out to the backbeat of approaching WW2, yet written with a touching and self-deprecating humor that makes you wish you had been on board. It now occupies a special place in my library.
- Round of a Country Year (David Kline, 2017). Kline is an Amish farmer who puts out a quarterly magazine, Farming (Remind me to resubscribe). This book is a simple diary of the farmer’s year. It’s the kind of work that has me dreaming of being a better steward and neighbor, of getting it right this year, or at least next.
- Fruitful Labors (Mike Madison, 2018). Ditto the Kline book. I knew the writing of Madison’s sister, Deborah, a creator of cookbooks, first. But this somewhat practical, often philosophical, work on farming in Northern California reeled me in with the author’s understanding, commitment, and struggle to manage a productive farm. Better written than I expected (and perhaps than I deserved, since the copy was given to me by the publisher), it sat on my to-read shelf for most of the year, the whiff of obligation wafting from its pages. Finally I read it, and for you farmers out there, I’d recommend it. You will be better for it. I know I am.
- Payne Hollow (Harlan Hubbard, 1974). I didn’t know much about Harlan Hubbard, other than that Wendell Berry wrote of him and he was mentioned by similar authors. I picked up this reprint at the Berry Center in New Castle, Kentucky. It is the autobiography of Harlan and his wife, Anna, as they settled down to live a life off the grid on the edge of the Ohio River in the 1950s. Simple, well-written, it kind of makes you regret every tie that binds you to this stinkin’ system.
- Conversations With Wendell Berry (Morris Grubbs, Ed., 2007). Goddamnit, Wendell Berry! Even the transcripts of his conversations are good and often great. This one was picked up just to say I owned it, for the bragging rights (Hear me loud and clear, Clem). So, I planned to read just one interview before placing it on the shelf. But then I read another, then another, until 213 pages later I ran out of reading. For Berry fans, pick it up. For those who don’t know Berry, pick it up.
I dream this January of a book yet to be found, at random, in a stack, discarded by a library for a sale. A forgotten and never-checked-out castoff that will make me fall in love with reading again and again, that will change me in ways I haven’t considered. A book that causes me, the next time I see you, to say, “Have you read…?”
Reading this weekend: The Last Cowboys, a pioneer family in the new west (Branch).