The book is built on the idea that the books we hold dearest, as well as those we choose to read, reflect who we are as people, how we see ourselves, and what values we appreciate. Inside the book are first-person narratives discussing the books on an “ideal bookshelf” from a wide range of people: writers, actors, musicians, chefs, and others.
Picking it up, even for a moment, will have you wondering what books are on your ideal bookshelf and why, which is exactly what happened to me when I first stumbled upon this incredible collection. Like many bookfiends, I have more books than I can count in my house (though I try to keep track of them with LibraryThing), and while I’d be loathe to part with any that have made their way onto my shelves, I do have clear favorites–the ones I have read over and over again, and will continue to pick up whenever I need what I find within those pages.
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
I don’t know why it took me so long to fall in love with this author’s stories! Perhaps it was due to starting with the Fionavar Tapestry when I was not quite in the mood, but whatever the cause it took me a long time to come around to reading his work. Of course, now that I have I am absolutely addicted. I have read every book of his and adored each and every one, but first among them (for me, anyway) is Under Heaven. Under Heaven, in particular, thrills me because of his focus on how a single act from a person of power changes the entire structure of a country and the life of one man who had not been anyone of note. This book is on my ideal shelf because it represents to me the reason I love the fantasy tradition. Kay writes with a creative blend of history and fantasy, and his characters are among the best developed and multi-faceted I have encountered.
On a related but somewhat side-note: with River of Stars, a novel based in the same world three centuries later, coming out in April, I am beside myself with anticipation!
Territory by Emma Bull
This book is unique in the mix because I return to it on a particular day once a year. The story itself is wonderful: a western with fantasy elements, characters who live on in your mind long after you’ve set the book down, and a world you want to continue beyond those last few words. It’s a book I thought my grandfather would have loved. He and I had a long tradition of sharing books with each other, and this is the book I didn’t get to share with him before he passed away. Territory represents to me a love of shared reading, in addition to being an engaging, unique story.
On the Beach by Nevil Shute
I received this book as a gift from my father, who isn’t the biggest fan of reading fiction. When he went to a number of bookstores to find a copy for me, though, I knew it had to be pretty special. He warned me, as he handed it over, that I would find it a little hard to take. I think what he meant to say should have involved the words “trauma” and “haunt,” I guess “a little hard to take” kind of says the same thing. On the Beach devastated me. Before this book entered my life, I hadn’t discovered a book that tore me down and asked me to question all I valued. It’s the first time I remember putting myself into apocalyptic scenarios and seeing what part of my humanity would emerge. I still come back to this one every once in awhile. There’s elements of this quiet, bleak yet beautiful portrait of humanity that speaks to me and likely always will.
Last, but most dear to me, is Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. I will never tire of reading this story; it’s one I first read it as a child and have since returned to countless times. At moments this book almost feels too intimate, as though it reveals too much of me…and this, I believe, is what it takes for a book to be on my ideal shelf. Whether I found myself in the story, or let the story shape so much of me that I have trouble telling myself apart from it, this book will always be an integral part of my sense of self.
I think it’s easier to explain why these books are on their shelves than what they say about me or what values I have (though I do see ties to family and imagination easily enough!)
So, what books are on your ideal bookshelf? Are these the books that changed your life? Made you who you are today? Or are these books old friends whose conversations you need to hear?