Today, on World Book Day, this blog post promises to be the last in an introspective mini-series about the books that have filled one room of my little croft house and are busily seeking new territories elsewhere in the house.
(There are satellite colonies in the kitchen and all the bedrooms. They have grand designs on the bathroom).
Other natural history bloggers have been posting similar musings on the place books take in their lives, and the compulsion to keep them or pass them on to new homes. Depending on one’s viewpoint, keeping books seems to be considered either an enjoyable amassing of a useful body of information or self-indulgent, squirrelish hoarding.
(I suspect the truth lies somewhere between those polar extremes…)
What, I wonder, would I keep if circumstances forced me to save just a precious few? Would non-fiction win out over fiction? Would contemporary thought be more valuable to me than superseded ideas? I think this would prove to be a battle between heart and mind, between beauty and function.
Subverting the usual Desert Islands Discs format that allows guests to determine what eight recordings they would choose to take to their remote island home, I’ve chosen the following eight books to save*:
“Natural History of British Butterflies” by F.W.Frohawk. Mentioned in my last post, this is by no means the most up-to-date British butterfly identification guide; but then, that was never really what I think it was meant to be. It’s a scholarly and factually accurate account of the life-cycle of every British butterfly species. The illustrations don’t have the hyper-realistic, eye-popping quality of the contemporary, brilliant, Richard Lewington paintings… but they are beautiful. I’ve loved this two-volume set from the moment I found a tatty pair in a charity shop some thirty years ago. (And yes, it’s a bit of a cheat, but I’m counting these two volumes as one book for the sake of squeezing in an extra choice later on…)
“My Family and Other Animals” by Gerald Durrell. I was given a paperback of this by my godmother when I was nine or ten years old. It’s a colourful, vivid account of episodes of the young Gerald Durrell’s life exploring the natural history of the countryside surrounding three villas his family lived in on Corfu prior to World War Two. With hindsight, I realise it was semi-fictional – his elder brother, Lawrence, did not live with the family as portrayed in the book; and indeed, Lawrence’s wife with whom he lived elsewhere on the island doesn’t feature at all in “My Family”.This was the book that inspired me beyond all others to explore every facet of the natural world around me as a boy. I wanted to be Gerald Durrell, and while I made the most of the Dorset and Somerset countryside around us, I was privately deeply disappointed that my parents hadn’t emigrated to a Mediterranean island abounding in more exotic fauna and flora.
“The Woodlanders” by Thomas Hardy. This was neither the first nor the last Hardy novel I read but it’s the one that evokes best for me the Dorset countryside I explored in my teenage years. That was a time of bunking off school at every opportunity to lose myself in the overgrown droves and unkempt combes of the Blackmoor Vale looking for butterflies and birds. Throw in a story of unrequited love, marital infidelity and class inequality and you’ve got an absolute, if uneasy, classic.
“Flora of the Silk Road” by Christopher and Basak Gardner. This hefty, glossy tome is no field guide, nor is it quite a travel book – though a lot of ground is certainly covered, and some of it through territory none of us will be safely visiting any time soon, sadly. It’s neither fish nor fowl, but it certainly is the best cure for the winter blues I can think of. It’s absolutely jam-packed with brilliant photography, image after sumptuous image of the wildflowers to be found the length and breadth of the legendary Silk Road trading route. Jewel-like gentians, irises, orchids, primulas… and so much more besides. Christopher and Basak know their plants, and they take fabulous, luminous macro and landscape images that I can lose myself in for hours.
“The Power of the Dog” by Thomas Savage. I’ve got a serious thing about twentieth century American fiction; with no disrespect to their European counterparts, I seem to gravitate more towards the American authors. Perhaps it’s the material they had to work with – big landscapes with few people in them, an affinity that my move to Shetland echoes. This great novel, set in the immensity of 1920s Montana, features one of the most compelling, complex characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction – the conflicted, talented, twisted and contradictory Phil Burbank – rancher, first-rate musician, naturalist and hunter, and jealous brother. His eventual undoing is visceral. This is American fiction at its very finest.
“Wildwood” by Roger Deakin. The late Roger Deakin was one of the great natural history writers and this, ‘a journey through trees’ is his best work – part natural history study, part history, part autobiography and part travel book. I love his studied use of language, and I love the way he blends his materials to make such a rich, rewarding read. His chapter exploring the origins of the eating apple is a study of perfection. If I could hope to emulate any natural history writer, it would be him.
“The Birds of Ecuador” by Robert Ridgely and Paul Greenfield. As a birder, I have a lot of field guides. Dozens of the things… This one though is my favourite, not just because it’s useful – and it is, as it covers some 1,600 species! – but also for what it represents to me personally. When I first visited Ecuador in 2014 the furthest south I’d got in the Americas was northern Mexico. Absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the mind-blowing biodiversity that awaited me in Ecuador. A love for South America was born in an instant. Months before that though I’d bought a copy of this field guide. I don’t know what I expected it to be, but my first impression was the sheer size of the thing – it’s a heavy lump of a book! Having now been birding with Paul Greenfield (the illustrator) I can see why it’s so useful – his eye for birds and detail is exceptional. The original paintings from which the plates were reproduced are absolute works of art.
“Independent People” by Halldor Laxness. This was a recommendation from a friend in Reykjavik before I went to spend some time in Iceland in 2009. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature back in 1955, Laxness was obviously a great writer – and this is my favourite of his novels. Set in rural Iceland in the early part of the twentieth century, again it evokes landscape brilliantly – but it’s the character of the novel’s main protagonist, a crofter called Bjartur, that sells the book to me. He’s hapless, determined, and stubborn to a fault. There’s a timeless quality to the plot, and both the place and the characters could so easily be transplanted to be Shetland; or, indeed, anywhere in the crofting counties of Scotland. This is a slow-burning, blackly humorous and beautiful book. Depressing too, but that never stopped a story from being a cracker did it?
So there we go – a mix of natural history and a bit of fiction. The latter, with hindsight, seems to have appealed to me as much for the settings as the characters and plots in each individual novel. And it’s so hard to winnow my choices down – no T.C.Boyle? No Seamus Heaney? What about Mark Avery’s damning “Inglorious”? – there should be room for all of those too, surely? On another day, in another mood, there would be all those and more.
Happily I don’t have to make those hard choices. I can have all the above, and more. Nobody’s forcing me to make any impossible decisions about what should stay and what should go.
What would make your shortlist of books?
*Desert Island Discs dictate that all castaways get a luxury item, the complete works of Shakespeare and the religious / philosophical book of their choice. I’ll assume that I take the Shakespeare as an audio book; the Bible to see if I can challenge my increasingly firm views about organised monotheist religions; and as a luxury item I will, of course, choose to keep my beloved Leica binoculars.