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By Andrew Katz April 29, 2008

What’s On Your Bookshelf?

When I was 21, I took my bike to Ireland for a month. On the roads that sloped and wound up and down between those giant green hills, I carried whatever I needed in red, rain-proof panniers that hung from either side of my back wheels. In one pannier were my clothes, gear and food, and in the other was a small library of books.

“Do you really need all these books?” a friend had asked as I packed. She looked uncertainly at the stacks of them on the floor.

I was surprised at the question. Yes, I said.

Why did I need all those books? I don’t know, but I breathed in those books, along with the scrubbed, salty air that blew in off the ocean along the rough Irish coasts. I ate them, with the same relish that I dug into the robust Irish breakfasts of eggs, sausage and blood pudding served in the pubs in the mornings. I rested in them, as I did in hostels and bed and breakfasts after a day of biking. I got lost in their characters, in their plots that twisted and turned like the roads.

All this was during a tough time. The seams I had taken for granted were becoming unstitched: my parents were divorcing, I wasn't feeling plugged in to med school, to the idea of becoming a doctor, and my certainty about who I was and what I was doing with my life was coming apart. The more I traveled and read, though, read and traveled–the two things seemed to go together–the more I seemed to be coming back to myself, like catching up with a long-lost, very close friend.

When I think of most of the places I went in Ireland, I think of the books I was reading at the time. In the Beara peninsula, after a day of arduous climbs and blissfully long descents, I remember sitting over a bowl of soup and laughing aloud at Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. In Adrigole, in a green valley next to one of Ireland’s tallest waterfalls, I remember reading Ursula K. Leguin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, getting up now and then to soak my head in the refreshing cool water of the falls.

The last book I read in Ireland was Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel. I was on Inishbofin, an island off the north west coast, and I remember finishing the book on a bare beach under a blue sky. It was late afternoon, the day, like my trip, almost over. With a feeling of calm that the end of the book had inspired, I walked down to the water and gazed across the Atlantic, imagining I could see Montreal. All my problems, I knew, were over there, and would be there to greet me when I got home. I became uneasy, for a moment. But then somehow it was okay. I was stronger than I had been a month ago, I realized. I had breathed, soaked in, eaten what I needed to during my trip. Whatever happened when I got back, I felt, I would be able to face it.

Was this miraculous, unexpected feeling, that I would be okay, helped along by the books I read that month? By Ireland itself–the air, the food, the hills, the cut-away coasts, the pubs, the music, the people? Both? By other things as well, that I can't pin-point? Again, I don't know. But what does seem true is that certain books or songs or other art, like certain experiences, get into your bloodstream; they become a part of you, altering you in deep yet nearly imperceptible ways. Like travel, they take you out of your everyday world–and also, eventually, lead you back to it, hopefully with a refreshed perspective.

The Bookshelf is a space for talking about the books and writers that have changed you. Or for talking about songs, movies, plays, dances–whatever kinds of art and works of art and artists you love. How do you participate in the Bookshelf? Recommend a reading list. Submit your All-Time Top Five list for say, books that made your guts hurt from laughing, or songs that make you cry. Review a book or album. (See Anna McGillivray’s review of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the inspiration for the movie Blade Runner, in SPACE’s launch edition.)

You can also submit your own creative work to the Bookshelf. Carol Shields, one of Canada’s best-known writers, was asked once why she wrote. She said she couldn’t find the kinds of books she wanted to read, so she wrote them herself. In Ireland, along with all those books, I carried around a writing journal for stories and poems. What’s in your writing journal? Your fresh perspective might be the one that someone out there is looking for. The Bookshelf is still evolving, and there will be space–of course!–for many kinds of projects. (Stay posted for our fiction contest, upcoming in a future edition, and other new features). In the meantime, keep sending in your lists, your reviews, your writing, and enjoy reading about the books and other art that have made a difference to people... out there in SPACE.


The photograph “Emily Reading at Wagner Falls” is by Julle Falk, under CC BY-NC 2.0


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