“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Robert Pirsig, 1974

‘What’s new?’ is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question ‘What is best?,’ a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream.”

“Author’s note: What follows…should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.

The first philosophical book that punctured my mind’s shell and led me to think seriously about the cultural American norms of quantity over quality, and fall in love with the foundations of logic. I was assigned this book in Governor’s School in philosophy class but I only skimmed it then. I was 17, in the English concentration, so I had a lot of other reading to do. I came back to it a few years later, a much better age to read this book. It needs to be read thoroughly and slowly. I am re-reading it now.

Also, back in my brief middle management days, I insisted on hiring a manager based almost solely on her answer to my question “What is your favorite book?” The woman who conducted the interview with me thought I was nuts, but the applicant’s answer of the above book got her the job with no management experience and she was fabulous at it.

“The Four Agreements”
Miguel Ruiz, 1997

Be impeccable with your word
Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.

Don’t take anything personally
Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

Don’t make assumptions
Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

Always do your best
Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

This is a life-changing book, a small, powerful book that helped me break my social phobias. I was assigned this book in a graduate class around 2005. I keep a copy of the summary of the Four Agreements above on my office wall where I can refer to them often. These agreements seem simple, but they are difficult in practice. Don’t let the cultish sounding “Toltec wisdom” and some of the more new-agey prose put you off. Give it a chance.

“Up in the Old Hotel”
Joseph Mitchell, 1992

The best talk is artless, the talk of people trying to reassure or comfort themselves, women in the sun, grouped around baby carriages, talking about their weeks in the hospital or the way meat has gone up, or men in saloons, talking to combat the loneliness everyone feels.”

“You can hate a place with all your heart and soul and still be homesick for it.

It would be natural to assume that I love this book because Joseph Mitchell is from my hometown and he was my grandfather’s cousin. I didn’t know about him, however, until after he died in 1996, which kills me because I think that he and I would have had some great conversations. For years all I knew about “Cousin Joe,” as my family referred to him, was that he “wrote for some magazine up north.” It wasn’t until I googled him that I learned that magazine was the New Yorker, and that he was internationally famous! He was another fish out of water in Robeson County, North Carolina, but he also could not put his hometown away. I could write a whole post about Joseph Mitchell, but I won’t. Arguably, this book should be on my fiction page. He is known as a news reporter and essayist, so I’m putting it here. This anthology contains pretty much everything he wrote. Read it. It’s fascinating.

“The Botany of Desire”
Michael Pollan, 2001.

When I first heard Michael Pollan interviewed about this book on NPR, I knew that I wanted to read it, but I had no idea how much it would change my ideas not only about agriculture and plants, but the entire relationship of humans with nature. In a nutshell, we have co-evolved with plants.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Annie Dillard, 1974

Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.

Another book for my re-read list. After I first read it, I pronounced it my desert island book. That was a long time ago and I need to see if it is still true. I suspect that it might be.

“Peace is Every Step”
Thich Nhat Hanh, 1990

We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living. We know how to sacrifice ten years for a diploma, and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on. But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive.

A book that helped me get through my undiagnosed panic attacks in the 90s. I learned to love washing the dishes, and I stopped to breathe when the phone rang. A sweet, simple guide about mindfulness.

“Bird by Bird”
Anne Lamott, 1994

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said. ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.

This book is about so much more than writing. After I read it, I went on a tear of reading Lamott’s fiction, and bought several of her other non-fiction books. Sadly, I’m not as crazy about the others. But her writing about writing? Wonderful stuff. I know professors who regularly assign the chapter about shitty first drafts.

The Snow Leopard
Peter Matthiessen, 1978

The sun is roaring, it fills to bursting each crystal of snow. I flush with feeling, moved beyond my comprehension, and once again, the warm tears freeze upon my face. These rocks and mountains, all this matter, the snow itself, the air – the earth is ringing. All is moving, full of power, full of light.”

“Have you seen the snow leopard? No! Isn’t that wonderful?

When I was working for minimum wage in a small bookstore, I could not imagine that I would ever have enough money or time off to travel beyond the occasional weekend camping trip nearby. I sank into travel literature like it was manna from heaven. This book did double-duty by feeding my anxious heart with the teachings of Buddhism as well as transporting me to the land of Nepal.

Outside Lies Magic
John Stilgoe, 1998

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, experts advised men to have their kitchens painted apple-green. The experts believed that apple-green quieted nervous people, and especially wives beginning to think of suffrage, of careers beyond the home. Today the explorer of color schemes finds in old houses and apartments the apple-green paint still gracing the inside of the cabinet under the kitchen sink, and the hallways of old police stations and insane asylums.

This small volume took me back to a free-range childhood in which I was a fearless bicycling explorer of the woods, crumbling old buildings, and back roads of my rural hometown. That child still exists within me, and she still has questions about light poles and doorknobs. Full of surprising microhistory that you probably never considered, reading this book will make you look at the ordinary world in a different way. It is a favorite of public historians for good reason.

To be continued…