Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Books for a long journey

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A Pattern Language

Earlier this week, I read Keith Gessen’s fascinating account in The New Yorker of the voyage of the Nordic Odyssey, a bulk carrier with a load of iron ore that sailed from Russia to China through the melting Arctic ice. Gessen notes that one of the greatest challenges on a month-long voyage like this is boredom: deprived of email and alcohol, crew members tend to spend their time playing solitaire, watching downloaded television shows on their laptops, and engaging in epic ping-pong matches. Reading this, I began to daydream of the books I would take on such a voyage. I often like to ask myself what books I would keep if I were compelled, for reasons of space, weight, or minimalism, to restrict myself to a few compact volumes, and recently I’ve been thinking about this a lot, perhaps because, with a baby in the house, I’m not sure when I’ll take such a trip again. The books I’d bring would need to be dense, open to rereading, and small enough to fit in a small suitcase or backpack—which means that I’d need to leave Proust and The Annotated Sherlock Holmes behind. At the moment, in my private reveries, this is my traveler’s library:

1. Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. I’ve long been a devotee of R.H. Blyth’s eccentric, prickly masterpiece, but I’ve gradually come to see it as one of my indispensable books, and perhaps the only one I’d bring with me if, for whatever reason, I had to spend a year or two reading nothing but what I could carry. At heart, it’s an opinionated, sometimes cranky philosophy of life that owes as much to Jesus, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare as to the Zen of the title, and it comes closer than any other book I’ve found to laying out the virtues I strive, with mixed success, to apply to my own life: simplicity, detachment, and objectivity. It’s a distilled anthology of some of the world’s best poetry and prose, both east and west; a spiritual handbook; a guide to literary and artistic expression; and a mine of practical wisdom. I’ve turned to it constantly in recent years, in both good and difficult times, and it’s been an unfailing source of inspiration and pleasure. For decades, it’s been out of print and difficult to find, but I see with some satisfaction that an inexpensive reprint edition should be available in February. Pick it up if you can—I don’t think you’ll regret it.

The Five Gospels

2. The Five Gospels. Even if you’re an agnostic like me, it’s hard to deny that the gospels contain some of the most compelling distilled wisdom in all of literature, even if their message tends to be lost in interpretation and transmission. The genius of the Jesus Seminar has been its commitment to teasing out the core of the original teachings, using a sort of best consensus—based on a majority vote—of textual and historical criticism, and their findings are elegantly presented in this book, which prints the texts of Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, and Thomas with colored annotations to indicate various degrees of perceived authenticity. You can quarrel with their methodology and assumptions, and many have, but it’s still riveting to be presented with what certainly feels like the center of what remains the most challenging of all ethical paths, if we’re willing to read it as closely as it demands: “Turn the other cheek.” “Blessed are the poor.” “Walk the second mile.” “Love your enemy.” And underlying it all is the seminar’s pithy admonition, which we’d all be advised to take: “Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you.”

3. A Pattern Language. Any great work of philosophy should also be full of useful advice, and the beauty of Christopher Alexander’s classic book—which is the best work of nonfiction of the past fifty years—is that it begins with a vision of the world on the level of nations and cities and brings it down to open shelving and window seats, while managing to remain a seamless whole. Reading it, it’s hard not to fall under the spell of its language and rhythms, which are simultaneously logical, soothing, and impassioned, and quickly come to seem like the voice of a trusted guide and friend. It’s primarily about architecture, but it’s impossible not to apply its lessons to all other aspects of one’s life, from political engagement to writing to web design. Each entry leads to countless others, while also inviting sustained thought and meditation. If I could give only one book to President Obama to read, this would be the one, and it’s also the book, above all others, that seems to offer the best tools to construct a meaningful life of one’s own, whether at home, on the road, or in a cabin on a ship in the Arctic Sea.

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