Zen and the Art of Bookshelf Maintenance


I stared at my bookshelf this morning, trying to figure out which of the tomes stored there is my favorite.  A friend asked me that question Friday night, and it’s been rambling around in my head since.  My first response was The Sea Wolf by Jack London.  It was the first “classic” novel of adult literature I had read, and I loved the action, moral struggle, and overwrought language.  I wasn’t entirely comfortable declaring it as my favorite, though, as I don’t think The Sea Wolf is particularly well written – everyone’s a critic – but it set me on a path to read more great books.  After spending the first two years of college actively avoiding a specific course of study by taking every class that piqued my interest, I settled on a major in Literature.  It was the closest thing I could find to getting a degree in Everything.  As a result, I have a significant inventory of books from which to select my favorite.

There is irony in that while I have a degree in literature, I don’t like to read.  More specifically, I don’t like starting to read, and I will go to some lengths to avoid it.  Starting a book means I will have to finish it, and that can take a lot of time.  I dread spending long stretches not watching TV, so I tend to put off reading.  Despite my reservations, and laziness, I have read a lot.

I read many novels in pursuit of my bachelor’s degree, but I preferred poetry.  Poems are almost always shorter than novels, which appeals to my inherent laziness.  My favorite poet is Wallace Stevens.  Some of his poems are quite long, and I find them tiresome.  I prefer his shorter works, and I went so far as to argue in my senior thesis that Stevens’ epic poems were failures in their attempt to elucidate truth simply because he talked too much.  I’m still not sure if I believe that, or if I was just making an excuse to not have to read the long ones.  Stevens’ The Palm at the End of the Mind is my favorite book of poetry, but I presume when someone asks a literature major about his favorite book, they are expecting it to be a novel.

It’s hard to pick a favorite novel since, for the most part, I’ve read each one only once.  I’m not a re-reader.  My memory is such that I’m unable to recall storyline details no matter how many times I read them.  I am well read but not well remembered, and I would lose a trivia contest about plot points so badly that you would doubt whether I had, in fact, read anything at all.

Based on what I could recall about each book, as I ran my eyes over the shelves, I noted a few nominees for favorite:

  • The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier was the first book I read that didn’t have a happy ending, which is mind-boggling when you’re a fifteen-year-old, living a somewhat sheltered middle class life.
  • The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton was the first time I experienced the truth that the book is almost always better than the movie.  The movie is good, though, and I recommend it if you are similarly reluctant to crack the spine on a book.
  • Siddhartha by Herman Hesse eloquently captured the spiritual longing I felt in college.  I had studied many sacred texts of world religions, but Hesse brought the quest for truth to life.
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac felt like reading a song.  I had never before so enjoyed the simple act of reading words on a page.
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain was the first novel that made me laugh out loud.
  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein inspired me to believe that even the most humble of us can achieve great things.  I read the epic tale at a moment in my life when my career took a new direction, and I identified with Samwise as he followed Frodo into Mordor to save the world.
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig made me want to be a writer.  I could never write with the elegance of Hesse or the music of Kerouac, but I could obsess over small details like Pirsig.
  • The Year the Cloud Fell by Kurt R.A. Giambastiani was the first published novel I had read by an author that I knew personally.  It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and mentorship for which I am eternally grateful.

When I turned away from the bookshelf, I was facing my writing desk.  Of course that’s a misnomer, as I don’t do much writing there. I should call it my fretting desk, at which I fret about not writing.  On the right side of the desk, I saw my two favorite books.  They are the ones that I wrote.  No, they’re not the best books – the first one desperately needs editing – but I can honestly say they are my favorites.  I take pride and pleasure recalling the effort I exerted to write them, to forge them into shape.  I was Siddhartha or Samwise on a journey into the unknown and uncertain.  I was joined on the path by Pirsig, Twain, and Giambastiani (and Bill Bryson), helping me find my way.  I stumbled many times and almost gave up hope, but I finished.  Despite them being memoirs, I wish I could remember the plots better.  I’ll have to re-read them sometime.

I hope you take pride and pleasure in your own creations, whether you write books, tend a garden, repair an engine, bake cakes, or some other expression of craft and imagination.  No matter how humble your creation may seem, you can achieve great things.


5 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Bookshelf Maintenance

  1. A lovely read, this your essay of books and reading. Loved some of the titles you mentioned, as I’ve read maybe half of them. You have good taste to which I could abide happily.

    I wish, however, that I would read more than I do. Like you, I just see how much time it takes, and then I find something else to do. I kick myself sometimes for this laziness. And admire people like my wife who seem to devour a book every few days.

    So as a writer, how much do you think the books you read influence your own writing style? And if this is so, then who are your influences?

    • Thank you, sir. Glad you liked it. I suspect everything I read has an influence on my style, as I often think about the way an author has presented their material. As far as direct influences go, I would say Bill Bryson is the one who gave me the sense that a memoir about somewhat mundane topics could be compelling and funny. Similarly, I enjoy Dave Barry’s musings. When I first conceived my book on running, I thought it would be a very serious book about the hard work required to run a marathon, but I figured out that no one would be interested unless it made them laugh. Cheers!

      P.S., I just finished a grilling session: burgers with bacon and fried eggs, all cooked on the cast iron flat top pan. My family says they will no longer accept a burger cooked any other way. My work here is done.

      • Very cool. A cholesterol burger for the ages. Man that sounds good. Gonna have to try that one of these days. For those times I don’t know whether to make supper or breakfast.

        Bill Bryson is a hero of mine too. Currently sorta reading Notes From a Small Island. A book where he specializes in making mundane things interesting, it seems, as he discourses about life in Britain.

        Anyways, yup, enjoyed your post this week. You nailed it ad usual.

        Cheers from Minnesota


  2. Catching up on your posts, so I was surprised to find myself listed along with such greats. Garsh. Thanks.

    I didn’t know you specifically held Bryson as a writing influence, though it was easy to draw parallels when reading your books. BTW, I recently received Bryson’s _At Home_. As I am looking for a book to start, it’s at the top of the stack.

    I used to have the same fear about starting a book. I’m a _slow_ reader, so it’s a sizable investment of time. Took me six months to slog my way through _The Agony and the Ecstasy_, back in high school. However, once I developed my Forty-Page-Drop-Kick Rule, it got easier. Start it, and if you’re not into it within 40 pages (or more, for longer works), it gets drop-kicked. No guilt. No shame. Move on, and keep moving, shark-like, until you find a morsel more to your taste.


    • I am a slow readers, too, and I find it incredibly frustrating, especially since I can’t remember any of it later. If someone asked me about _The Year the Cloud Fell_, I couldn’t tell them much more than, “Custer wins and there are dinosaurs.” I am comfortable putting a book away if it doesn’t grab my attention. Mom’s rule was to read the first 100 pages, but I wouldn’t let it go that long. However, I try to start only those books I am reasonably certain I will enjoy. Cheers.

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