A Reading Life: a 40-year journey through 40 top books – Part 3

Kiwi bush cartoons, wisdom in lakeside cabins, reflective mountain solitudes; miserable redemption in Paris, mystical research in the East, monastic romance in Kyoto.  Part three of my 40th birthday 40 books extravaganza.

This follows Part One: Books 1-10 (from toddler to teen, nursery tales to synthesisers), and Part Two: Books 11-20 (from Dickens to Dante, the Inklings to psycho-spiritual cuisine).

Book 21. Bushcraft: Outdoor Skills for the New Zealand Bush by the NZ Mountain Safety Council

NZ-bushcraft-manual-coverDuring my chemistry Masters, friends took me up to the Coromandel Pinnacles hut.  It was my first overnight tramp, and I was hooked.  I soon acquired the Bible of Kiwi tramping technique, the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council Bushcraft manual.

You can learn it all here.  How to pack your pack and pitch your tent, safely cross rivers and scree and snow.  How to follow cairns and blazes on trees, find south from the Southern Cross and predict weather from the clouds.  How to warm up hypothermia victims and survive in the bush and signal for help.  There’s even a recipe for tramping Tararua biscuits:

NZ-bushcraft-tararua-biscuitsThe original 1968 edition was small and olive-covered and instructed “Keep This Book in Your Pack”.  Before synthetic clothing, wool was king, although nylon rope was around.  Before environmental concerns and compact cookers, it recommends carrying a half axe to chop wood or fell trees for your fire.

I first owned the second 1983 edition, enhanced with cartoons of how (not) to do it.  Beware cheeky mice snatching your poorly packed sausages:

NZ-bushcraft-packingBut ensure you’ve got your pet possum with telescope when lost:

NZ-bushcraft-lostAnd don’t lose your hat in the blast from a chopper:

NZ-bushcraft-helicopterIn my third edition of 1995, the cartoons have been redrawn, without wily rodents or recipes.  But a trip still begins by consulting the park ranger on the Waikaremoana Track – my second overnighter.  On that trip there were 9 of us, so of course we were the Fellowship of the Ring.  Climbing through the goblin forest in heavy wind with the trees creaking and shaking their mossy beards at us, elves and ents didn’t seem too far away.  Sadly, the picture below doesn’t show the nudist party one friend met up there on Panekiri Bluff above the lake.


Book 22. Walden; or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau

Walden (2)One of my desert island books would be Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854).  For Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”.  His fellow citizens of Massachusetts were enslaved to their superfluous possessions, their lives frittered away by trivia.  He believed “we need the tonic of wildness”, so

Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber.

As a do-it-yourself handyman, Thoreau lists the costs of construction: boards and shingles, second-hand windows and 1000 old bricks, two casks of lime for plastering, nails and hinges and screws and a latch.  It all totalled $28.12 ½.  (He said one year’s rent for a university student’s room was $30.)  Thoreau spent two years in his single-room cabin, 1 mile from his nearest neighbour, pondering Homer and the Bhagavad-Gita, thinking about life, and turning up arrowheads as he hoed his rows of beans.

Walden_PondThoreau is a sharp observer, describing his woods through the seasons, as wild geese migrate to Mexico and months later back to Canada.  We witness a war between red and blank ants, and note the hares and moles and mice nesting in his basement.  We hear the trumpeting of bullfrogs and the wailing of screech owls and the whippoorwills chanting their vespers at dusk.  We admire a hawk soaring and tumbling above:

Walden first edition

Walden first edition

The tenant of the air, it seemed related to the earth but by an egg hatched some time in the crevice of a crag; or was its native nest made in the angle of a cloud, woven of the rainbow’s trimmings and the sunset sky, and lined with some soft midsummer haze caught up from the earth?  Its eyrie now some cliffy cloud.

And we gaze over Walden Pond below, “sky water… a mirror which no stone can crack”, its placid surface dimpled by perch and pickerels:

A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows.

As well as a poet, Thoreau is a scientist, disproving the myth that Walden Pond was bottomless.  He cut holes in the ice to measure its depth by dropping a line, producing this map of the bottom:

walden-pond-mapThoreau has challenged me to lead a simpler, less cluttered life; to remember we don’t need a lot to be happy, because “that man is richest, whose pleasures are the cheapest”.  And as I reflect on my reading life, I heartily concur with his observation:

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!

Runner-up nature reflections: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) by Annie Dillard.

My birthday Thoreau quotes.

See a John Updike review of Walden, an interactive map or photos of Walden woods from the 150th anniversary edition (which cost exactly US $28.12), an illustrated teddy bear version “Henry Builds a Cabin“, or read an annotated edition of Walden online.

Book 23. Mountain Solitudes: Solo journeys in the Southern Alps of New Zealand by Aat Vervoorn

vervoorn-mountain-solitudesA humble Kiwi equivalent to Walden might be Mountain Solitudes (2000).   Aat Vervoorn is an Asian history lecturer at ANU, and was once an alpine guide in NZ’s Westland-Mt Cook parks.  Like Thoreau, he weaves together wilderness description and philosophical reflection, historical anecdote and Chinese wisdom.

In many cultures, there is a tradition of venturing into the mountains to purify the mind, to empty it of extraneous concerns and concentrate on what is essential.

Vervoorn has gone far deeper into the outdoors than my easy tramps.  He follows deer trails through scrub.  He jumps between ice hummocks and crampons around glacier crevasses in “a real-life game of Snakes and Ladders”.  He sleeps on the rock ledges of indignant keas, and dialogues in imagination with colonial explorers who once camped there too.

Overhead the sky was full of stars.  The radiant edge of the galaxy spanned the valley, bridging with star clusters and constellations the space between one range and the other.  Light that had been travelling for hundreds of millions of years fell around me like fine rain.

In avalanche danger, Vervoorn once sensed a comforting presence that “remained near the edge of consciousness, quietly, discreetly, yet potent and undeniable”.  He surveys explanations for this “third man” phenomenon that endangered explorers sometimes report, before criticising the arrogant ambition that puts many in unnecessary peril:

Mountains are reduced to a frame for the portrait of the glorious ego, a doormat on which feet are wiped in order to enter the hall of fame.

Vervoorn is more humble and down to earth and, where I’m recounting my life through books, he devotes an early chapter to boots:

We sometimes encounter people who can recount their life history in terms of significant historical events… what I can do is tell you my life story in terms of the boots I was wearing when history happened around me…
Should this discourse on feet and footwear appear excessive, remember that feet are the most basic reality, the true foundation of things.


Mt Cook area

From farm boots “like rubber soled concrete blocks” to green-laced purple mountaineering boots, it’s a blistering history.  But, as does Thoreau, Vervoorn closely observes where he treads:

Within 100 metres of the road I had entered another world, one in which there existed only shades and textures of green: soft, pliant, still, alive, powerful.  The forest canopy shut out noise and movement, washing in deeper green the ferns and lichens, the moss that covered tree-trunks and earth alike.  On that moss I stepped without a sound, leaving no trace, as if treading on green light rather than the ground.

Soon consciousness narrowed until nothing remained other than the next step to be taken and the texture and pattern of the snow, its whiteness passing gradually beneath me, crystalline and heavy with water, its luminosity changing as swirls of cloud extended and retreated overhead.  I rested frequently, turning to reflect on the line of footprints rising from far below, in a winding curve, to the purple plastic boots that kept me secure on the mushy surface.

While keeping his feet on the ground, he also evokes mystical moments:

To be so completely at home that there no longer remains any distinction between self and surroundings; to feel that the pulse of our blood is inseparable from the shafts of sunlight and rain clouds dispersed by the winds, an expression of the same force that trembles in the roots of totara trees as they split the rocks.

It’s a charming and varied collection that deserves to be better known.

Runner-up Kiwi tramping spirituality: Soul Survivor: a Spiritual Quest through 40 Days and 40 Nights of Mountain Solitude (1998) by Paul Hawker.
Or for a Himalayan hike of the soul, see The Snow Leopard (1978) by Peter Matthiessen.

Book 24. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Les MisérablesBack overseas, my favourite French novel is Les Misérables (1862).  At 365 chapters and 1500 pages in many editions, it’s one of the longest novels ever written, and has some of the most powerful scenes and characters I’ve met.

It’s a cops and robbers thriller, complete with escapes in coffins and chases through sewers.  It’s a historical epic, sweeping from the battlefield of Waterloo to the barricades of Paris.  I love it when revolutionaries raise a fallen comrade’s bloody coat with the cry, “Now this is our flag!”

Like the works of Charles Dickens, it’s a protest against social injustice – the 1863 US translation skipped the antislavery passages.  The title could be translated “the dispossessed” or “the outsiders”, and Victor Hugo (1802-1885) wrote:

Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: “open up, I am here for you”.

Classic-Comics_No_09_Les_MiserablesThe degradation of Fantine is heartbreaking, as she sells her hair and her teeth and her virtue to feed her child.  Les Misérables also has the most moving depictions of redemption and grace.

The hero Jean Valjean is released after 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread and then attempting escape.  No one will give an ex-convict board, until he meets Bishop Myriel.  That night Valjean absconds with his silverware and is caught by the police, but the bishop tells them the cutlery was a gift.  Echoing the Sermon on the Mount, as Valjean leaves the bishop also gives him his candlesticks and says:

“Never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man… Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good.  I am purchasing your soul.”

These words reverberate in Valjean’s mind:

He felt dimly that the pardon of the priest was the hardest assault and the most formidable attack which he had yet sustained; that his hardness of heart would be complete if it resisted this kindness; that, if he yielded, he must renounce that hatred… that the struggle, a gigantic and decisive struggle, had begun between his own wickedness and the goodness of that man.

Valjean’s bitterness is shattered and his identity transformed.  But he had broken parole, and his nemesis does not believe in grace. Inspector Javert personifies justice and lives to uphold the law.

les-miserables-early-editionJavert is incorruptible, and I stand in awe of his integrity.  When he believes he himself has unlawfully rebelled against authority, he begs to be dishonourably dismissed with the words, “If I were not severe towards myself, all the justice that I have done would become injustice”.

Throughout the book, Javert hunts Valjean, until the moral climax when Valjean saves his life.  Javert doesn’t know how to respond: follow the law and arrest Valjean?  Or follow his conscience against the code and let a prisoner go?  Now Javert too is confounded by grace:

A beneficent malefactor, a compassionate convict…  Jean Valjean confused him. All the axioms that had served as the supports of his life crumbled away before this man. Jean Valjean’s generosity toward him, Javert, overwhelmed him…

His ultimate anguish was the loss of certainty. He felt uprooted. The code he lived by was in fragments in his hand…  He could no longer live by his lifelong principles; he had entered a strange new world of humanity, mercy, gratitude and justice other than that of the law…

Les_Mis_2Hugo’s novel is a stunning parable of law trumped by grace, darkness transformed by light.  Bishop Myriel’s prayer “like a lamp in the center of the starry night” likely inspired the painting Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (see in brief, or in detail), who wrote of Les Misérables,

It is good to read such a book again, I think, just to keep some feelings alive. Especially love for humanity, and the faith in, and consciousness of, something higher.

See posts on grace versus law and mercy in Les Misérables, French history background here and here, computed network graphs of relationships between characters, Costumes Guide to dress like your favourite character, or abundant resources at Victor Hugo Central.

Book 25. The Journey to the East by Herman Hesse

hesse journeyMy favourite German author is Herman Hesse (1877-1962), who received the 1946 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his inspired writings which, while growing in boldness and penetration, exemplify the classical humanitarian ideals and high qualities of style”.

Hesse said all his novels were “biographies of the soul”.  They describe an individual’s search for self-knowledge and enlightenment – Siddhartha (1922) retells Buddha’s story.  Hesse drew on Jungian psychology, Indian religion and Chinese philosophy; history and literature, music and art.  His intellectual-spiritual synthesis resonates with me, most powerfully in The Glass Bead Game (1943), which was preceded by his novella The Journey to the East (1932)

This is a dreamlike fable of a mystical pilgrimage to “the home and youth of the soul”.  The pilgrims include Plato, Mozart, Don Quixote and Puss in Boots!  The narrator was once their choirmaster, but somehow lost his companions and lost his way, sold his violin and now doubts the League still exists.  Years later, he struggles to recapture the faded and fragmented memories:

As it has been my destiny to take part in a great experience, and having had the good fortune to belong to the League and allowed to share in that unique journey, the wonder of which blazed like a meteor and afterwards sank into oblivion – even falling into disrepute – I have now decided to attempt a short description of this incredible journey.

While he seeks healing through writing this history, he soon finds the task is impossible:

Words do not express thoughts very well; everything immediately becomes a little different, a little distorted, a little foolish.

First English edition

First English edition

Hesse’s parents were missionaries in India, and he began training for the Christian ministry.  Although he soon rebelled against institutional religion, his writing often feels like a surreal gospel parable.  The narrator’s counterpart, Leo, is a St Francis of Assisi type who communes with animals and epitomizes self-effacing servant leadership.

I asked the servant Leo why it was that artists sometimes appeared half-alive, while their creations seemed so irrefutably alive….  “It is the law of service. He who wishes to live long must serve, but he who wishes to rule does not live long.”

Hesse’s poignant description of lost faith recalls the forgotten wonder of childhood, or Christ’s parable of young shoots choked by weeds and stones:

“Once in their youth the light shone for them; they saw the light and followed the star, but then came reason and the mockery of the world; then came faint-heartedness and apparent failure; then came weariness and disillusionment, and so they lost their way again, they became blind again. Some of them have spent the rest of their lives looking for us again, but could not find us. They have then told the world that our League is only a pretty legend and people should not be misled by it. Others have become our deadly enemies and have abused and harmed the League in every possible way.”

hesse-booksThe Journey to the East is a puzzling, mesmerizing tale of faith lost and found again.  The closing scenes resemble Christ’s merciful – and ominous – restoration of Peter after his denials.

Despair is the result of each earnest attempt to go through life with virtue, justice and understanding and fulfil their requirements. Children live on one side of despair, the awakened on the other side.

To learn more, see the 1946 Nobel Award Ceremony Speech, the Hesse Portal, a symposium on teaching Buddhism through Siddhartha or explore the labyrinthine Glass Bead Game Wiki.

Book 26. The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto by Pico Iyer

Lady And The MonkMy own journey to the East began in 2002, when a friend invited me to teach English to South Korean schoolchildren on a six-week camp.  I returned the next year, visiting gardens, palaces and monasteries in Kyoto on the way, before a Classical Chinese Philosophy course back home opened the world of Confucian and Taoist thought.

To represent my East Asian explorations, I’ve chosen The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto (1991).  Seeking “a life of Thoreauvian quiet”, Pico Iyer moved to Japan, where he penned many Thoreau-like observations:

Winter made everyone a kind of monk in Japan…  Even the Emperor, as a boy, had been made to stand out under an ice-cold waterfall, in dead of winter, for 15 minutes each day.

The late-March days eased by in one seamless flow of blue epiphanies…  When the cherry blossoms came to town, it was a punctual miracle… a blaze of lustrous pink.

Green, green, green were the colours of Kyoto in the summer: the dripping green of moss gardens, the thick dark emerald of the pine trees on the temple slopes; the illuminated jade of white-barked bamboo shot through with summer light.

The hills of Kyoto began to blaze with reds, the trees along the canals to light up like gold… Autumn seemed much deeper than spring, as sadness is deeper than brief joy, or memory than hope: the age old Japanese assumption.

pico_iyer_the_lady_and_the_monk_book_coverIyer is bemused by Japan’s contradictions: classical ink paintings and Hello Kitty plastic kitsch, emotional subtlety and bureaucratic efficiency, kimonos and miniskirts, pop art haiku.  He learnt Japanese from both a businessmen’s handbook and bilingual poetry readers, yielding unusual sentences like “Please give your secretary the autumn moon”.

The paradox climaxes in the theme of Hesse’s novel Narcissus and Goldmund (1930), the tension between romantic artist and intellectual ascetic. Iyer tells a friend,

“For a long time, I spent one month living like Goldmund, travelling around the world, and one month like Narziss, leading a monk’s life at home.  Now I’m trying both at the same time, to see which one is better.”

Through the year Iyer reads both Japanese love poetry and Zen philosophy – “lady tempting monk, monk renouncing lady” – himself attracted to both a Japanese woman and Buddhist monasteries.

Maiden and priest,
From her shoulders a lock of hair
Over the sutra.

lady-monk-coverIyer has been called “the poet laureate of wanderlust” and “Thomas Merton on a frequent flier pass”.  He lives in rural Japan without a cell phone or broadband and visits a Benedictine monastery every year for “The Joy of Quiet“:

We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say… The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug.

When he’s not on the road asking “Why We Travel“:

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again – to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.

See the New York Times review “Zen and the Art of Flirtation“, Iyer’s official site with writings on the inner world and the outer world, or interviews on travel and writing here and here.

Here is his TED Talk: “Where is Home?”

Bonus Book. My Ideal Bookshelf by Jane Mount (art) and Thessaly La Force (editor)

My-IdeaBookshelfAs I write, I’ve stumbled across an apposite volume.  The authors of My Ideal Bookshelf (2012) selected over 100 creative leaders: artists and writers and musicians, photographers and designers and chefs. Each was asked to:

Select a small shelf of books that represent you – the books that have changed your life, that have made you who you are today, your favourite favourites.

Jane Mount painted the spines of their books, alongside a one page essay from each contributor.  Some shelves reflect careers in architecture or cooking or fashion design. One illustrator thinks you should always judge a book by its cover and delights in jacket colours. Many have an eclectic mix of books but see a thematic unity: upbeat optimism or dark struggle or breaking the rules. My favourite fictional jumble comes from actor-artist James Franco:

The cover of My Ideal Bookshelf (above) echoes some the questions I’ve asked while compiling my own shelf of 40 books, and I relate to the comment, “Looking at this shelf is like looking at some of the key building blocks in my brain.” And I’ve added this bonus book because it has Pico Iyer’s shelf, which of course includes Walden:

Here is Iyer’s lovely comment on his favourite books:

What more could one ask of a companion? To be forever new and yet forever steady. To be strange and familiar all at once, with enough change to quicken my mind, enough steadiness to give sanctuary to my heart. The books on my shelf never asked to come together, and they would not trust or want to listen to one another; but each is a piece of a stained-glass whole without which I couldn’t make sense to myself, or to the world outside.

Amen to that!

See reviews showing other shelves here and here, or watch Jane Mount paint a shelf on YouTube.  You can browse contributors’ book lists or upload your own ideal bookshelf at www.idealbookshelf.com.

Birthday Bibliography: Books 21-26

21. Bushcraft: Outdoor Skills of the New Zealand Bush NZ Mountain Safety Council 1984
22. Walden; or, Life in the Woods Thoreau, Henry David 1854
23. Mountain Solitudes: Solo journeys in the Southern Alps of New Zealand Vervoorn, Aat 2000
24. Les Misérables Hugo, Victor 1862
25. The Journey to the East Hesse, Hermann 1932
26. The Lady And The Monk: Four Seasons In Kyoto Iyer, Pico 1991


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