I am essentially urban in character, more contented within walking distance of a well-stocked bookshop and reliable eating place. Contemplative moments are snatched in art galleries, or during operatic or classical music performances. Though I grew up in an isolated, rarely visited country, from my twenties I made the city my stamping ground. Whether in the alleys of Naples, the culinary back streets of Barcelona, Parisian boulevards, or the grubby, winding streets of London, I feel that I am in my natural habitat. What is it that makes one of us urban in character, and the other drawn to rural life?
There are alternative landscapes I am drawn to when I feel confused or depressed. I have written before of my primordial love of deserts. Ancient forests, rivers, mountain tops, and the seaside. Intuitively I visit these places when I am low in spirits and invariably I return to the city brightened.
Reading Roger Deakin, years ago, awakened a curiosity about rural life. I began to wonder whether I could inhabit the countryside, willingly relinquish urban conveniences. I began to speculate whether urban life was in some way draining me of my life force, and acting as a catalyst for a protracted mild depression. Just over a year ago I laid the first stone of a new chapter. As always in England, urbanity is never far away, but the transition is now underway.
In my last post I referred to Olivia Laing. I finished her enthralling examination of the effects of alcohol on a series of writers. After putting The Trip to Echo Spring down, I wanted to stay with her voice so started her first book To The River. Though the same easy erudition is present, the tone is more contemplative. At first the subject brought to mind Robert Macfarlane, but after a few more chapters it was Roger Deakin’s voice that comes through in addition to Laing’s strong presence. Laing shares with Deakin this ability to bring forth images of absolute lucidity, images that the reader can also inhabit.
In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.
Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues
Inspired by Verso Books’ excellent Guide to Political Walking, below is my guide to books that effortlessly combine walking, with musing about culture, literature, politics and geography, a form of exercise that I endorse.
Notebooks from the Roger Deakin Archive at the University of East Anglia
Each of Roger Deakin’s three books, Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees andNotes From Walnut Tree Farm are stunning, the apotheosis of natural history writing. The picture above is of Deakin’s notebooks, archived at UEA. One day I might spend a very blissful day thumbing through those books.
List time: books that influenced me. Influence is defined as either life-changing or transformative in reading patterns (which equates to the same thing). These are roughly in time order. Later I may explain what changed as a consequence. Here’s the list:
Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson
Dicken’s Great Expectations
Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice
Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source
Winston Graham’s Angell, Pearl and Little God
Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London
Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment
Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums
J. P. Donleavy’s The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman
Memes come, memes go, and I rarely inflict personal stuff on readers of this blog. However, this meme is fun: list the ten books that most influenced you. Forget the books you love, or the books you think you need to say you’ve read; instead, list the books that answer the question, “Who are you, and how did you get that way?”
Sartre’s Nausea scared me witless. I was nineteen and understood that God was either dead or had turned his face from man. It took three years to begin to recover from Nausea and I consider that recovery a work in progress. The only book that I have reread annually.
Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment was the book that brought home Kafka’s truism that “literature is an axe for the frozen sea within us.”
Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land lead to a fifteen year engagement with science fiction and fantasy. How many books did Heinlein publish? I must have read most of them. I’m not proud of Heinlein and you’ll find no evidence of my passion on my bookshelves today.
Bruce Sterling’s The Artificial Kid was published in 1980. Can you believe that this novel is thirty years old? This book still has more pointers for the future than science fiction written in the last ten years.
Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or provided guidance and sustenance during an unfortunate first marriage.
Winston Graham’s Angell, Pearl and Little God adheres thirty five years later. I don’t know why and feel no need to explore or revisit the memories.
J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. Donleavy, in my twenties, was a writer that I read exhaustively. It began with this book. None of his books have survived my regular culls but I occasionally have an urge to reread this book.
The influence of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is inestimable. This is possibly the source of my passion for rambling, digressive literature,
Roger Deakin’s Wildwood kicked off a continuing appetite for poetic prose about the natural sciences. Deakin lead to Robert MacFarlane, Sara Maitland, Roger Mabey: all writers with a notable influence on how I live.
Although I considered myself a collector of books before reading Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night, Manguel helped me to appreciate the value in a carefully selected, well-culled and organised library.
Voracious readers have regular dilemmas about what book to read next. At Of Books and Bicycles, the perplexity is of genre or category. Always the question of whether to read deeply to explore a category or individual writer thoroughly, or widely to embrace a wide selection of genres. The categories that provide amusement at the moment are:
Philosophy to deepen my reading of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard; also to explore Kant to whatever extent I am capable.
Literary criticism of the novel: contemporary texts like James Wood, Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Geoffrey Hill and Denis Donoghue; also earlier writing by Guy Davenport, Maurice Blanchot, Cyril Connolly and William Empson.
Fiction and non-fiction classics of all periods, with less emphasis on contemporary, and guided loosely by Bloom’s Western Canon.
Books about books, with the work of Alberto Manguel and Michael Dirda top of my list.
Natural history, inspired by my deep enjoyment of Roger Deakin.
A sprinkling of science, certainly all the output of cosmologist Paul Davies.
Psychology, working my way slowly through Freud’s essays and lectures.
Travel classics like Wilfred Thesiger, William Dalyrymple, Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Culinary-lit, particularly M. F. K. Fisher and Ruth Reichl
This is hardly comprehensive and is subject to whimsy.