What makes a book a ‘keeper’? Why is it that Book A, a critically acclaimed literary masterpiece, venerable classic or New York Times bestseller, can be given away without a second thought while Book B instantly earns permanency on your small shelf of those titles you must own? Why can Book C be returned to the library while the borrowed copy of Book D must be replaced with a bought one that can be loved and treasured longterm?
I’ve talked about something similar before when I mentioned The Crow Road by Iain Banks, which is not only one of my keepers but also exists in the form of a mouldy old paperback we can’t bear to give up. It’s a slightly different phenomenon when you hang onto a particular copy of a book like this: it could be classified as a mild form of family lunacy and I don’t expect anyone else to follow my example. When I talk about keepers I mean any book you love so much you feel you must own a copy. I wondered what it was about these special books that makes us love them so much, and whether what is on our keepers shelf says anything about us as writers.
Here’s some of what’s on my keepers shelf:
1. The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett
2. The Crow Road by Iain Banks (yes, that copy)
3. The Catalogue of the Universe by Margaret Mahy: a quirky YA novel with a science geek protagonist
4. Little, Big by John Crowley: a fantasy classic rich in folkloric wisdom
5. Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes: the only nonfiction book on the keepers shelf, this had a profound influence on my attitude to women’s roles in traditional story, and on my personal development
6. Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books: one of the strongest childhood influences on me as a writer, I suspect
7. The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago: a beautifully realised love story whose central character is a middle-aged copyeditor—don’t be fooled by the title. I own several books by this author.
I have many other books that I don’t ever intend to give away, notably my reference library of history, mythology, fairy tales, spirituality and so on, and also classic novels by Jane Austen and others. But this list of seven tells me most about myself as a reader and writer. All these writers are capable stylists and each has a highly individual approach to telling a story. Each of these books has what I call ‘heart’ – each strikes a chord deep inside the reader, not just on first reading, but on third or fourth as well. Each of them ends on a note of hope, despite the stories containing tragic or confronting events. For me, that underlying belief in the possibility of redemption and the strength of love (not just romantic love but other kinds as well, notably among family) is an absolute essential for a keeper.
So, what’s on your keepers shelf, and why?
Photographer: Paul Hill.