Tell Me What to Read. Please.

natops and packIt’s a little scary to find out that history does repeat itself – it’s even scarier to see one’s own mind run like a CD player on repeat.  A year ago I was writing about my mushy brain and the end of the semester.  I was making lists and planning my summer.  And here I am again.  At this point it might be appropriate to give the end of May slump some sort of catchy name – at least then I’d be expecting it.

Like last spring, my brain is working on lists.  I am trying to reset, to find creative space to write and think about something new, but for now there is great comfort in short bits of words.

My most impressive list is nearly six pages long.  I’ve had help with this one – it’s a packing list for a long backcountry trip.  I downloaded the checklist, and made my own notes in the empty margins.  Then I passed it on to a friend who covered it in sticky notes and amended priorities.  The list is nearly complete.  I have gear stashed all over the house and in a week or so my post-it-note wielding girlfriend will double check my loot. But one crucial item has me stumped.

I only get to take one book.

Thirty days – one book.  Electronic devices can’t be charged, so borrowing my son’s Kindle is out.  My mother has suggested poetry.  In her mind a good collection of poetry never gets old.  I worry that poems won’t give me the narrative arch I need to escape from sleeping on the ground for a month.  One of my writing friends suggested David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest.  I’ve been avoiding it for years and the three hundred endnotes alone could keep me busy.  Another friend told me to take something familiar, a beloved book to keep me company.  I could reread All the Pretty Horses or Stegner’s Where the Bluebird Sings from the Lemonade Springs.  But I might get bored.

I made my first longish backpacking trip when I was 12.  I spent five days in the Beartooth Mountains with my ten-year old brother, my father, and one Nancy Drew mystery.  The Beartooths are rugged and impressive.  We didn’t see another person until we hiked down out of our camp on day six.  We hiked and fished and played in the mountains for nearly a week, but the most memorable part of the trip was the four straight days of rain.  I spent more time in my little green pup tent than I care to remember.  I read the Nancy Drew book slowly. Twice.

Some of the current stacks

Some of the current stacks

The one book dilemma has been with me for a while.  My friends ask if I’ve figured it out yet.  I look to anyone and everyone for suggestions.  I consult every ‘best of list’ I can find.  I decide and set something in the gear pile and then I get nervous and snatch it back.  It feels like a big commitment.

Not long ago, my mother found the warped copy of Nancy Drew in the bottom of her old pack – the one I carried into the mountains twenty-five years ago.  It’s a good reminder.  Nearly a week in a wet tent could have been a disaster, but instead it was the beginning of a long love affair with the mountains.  I’m sure this trip will be the beginning of something too.  I just have to find the right book.

– Sarah

14 thoughts on “Tell Me What to Read. Please.

  1. anything by Ann Zwinger… “Run River Run” is a lovely book about canoeing rafting from the eadwaters of the Green River to the Grand Canyon…. It’s beautiful.. meditative and not boring at all..
    or the book by Chip Rawlins “Sky’s Witness” which is about doing hydrology in the Winds in the winter… it would connect you to where you are going . Rawlins is also a poet and his prose is wonderful..

    I the Zwinger in paperback and would let you take it.. I have the Rawlins in hard back.

  2. One book, one month, with no way to switch, or get distracted… I would go with the Infinite Jest recommendation. Take at least two bookmarks to deal with the back and forth nature of the endnotes. Gird yourself for the effort. It takes commitment, but the trade off is great: one month devoted to a masterpiece for a lifetime of satisfaction knowing you tackled the challenge. You don’t want to be lying on your death bed someday saying, “Dammit, if only I had read Infinite Jest.”

  3. Guns, Germs, and Steel.

    Tales of a Northwest Mountaineer.

    ANAM. A few editions, they’re small and light.

    I have a great natural history book for my region. It shows how to identify a tree, animal, rock, etc, then come a few pages about that species. I’m never so interested in this stuff as when I’m out on the trail.

    • Guns, Germs, and Steel has been on my list for a long time. I may take a floral fauna book as an “extra” – it’s more tool than writing material, right? I was also thinking of a Best American collection…this might be getting harder with all of the great suggestions!

  4. Thirty days with just one book is an intense standard to measure a book by. If you haven’t read it before, my recommendation would be The Solitaire Mystery. While it’s not nearly long enough to last for 30 days, I think the content fits well with any trip, but especially a backpacking trip. I think this book is a must read for anyone, but I think it would really enhance your enjoyment of the trip as a whole as well. And if you’re like me, not just the trip, but life after it as well.

    If it was finished, I would recommend HPMOR ( This is one of the most enjoyable reads I have ever come across. It has everything to want in a book: compelling multidimensional characters, a gripping character-driven plot, great humor, satisfying action, accessible philosophy, intense intrigue, and touching moments/relationships, all without simplifying the realities of living in very trying times. At one point or another, this thing tugs on every string for me. Both times I’ve read it, I read all 1300+ pages in less than 4-5 days. But since it’s not finished, you can’t actually take a copy with you.

  5. the other thing to remember is that each of your fellow trekkers will have a book.. so instead of 1 book, you’ll have 15 (or so)…. I am sure that everyone will trade books..

  6. My first impulse when this sort of question comes up is always to answer with Mark Danielewski’s “House of Leaves.” For me, it was a fairly trans-formative piece in terms of how I think about and interact with literature, so I’m usually eager to share it with others.

    I just started “The Human Drift,” a series of social and economic proposals by King Camp Gillette, but I can’t in good conscience suggest it unless bizarre old treatises are your thing.

  7. That’s easy, especially given the nature and length of the trip. Take the Tiina Nunnally translation of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. It’s 1000 pages long and so will keep you company the entire time, and as it’s set in 14th-century Norway, there’ll be a kind of synergy going on between the book and your physical environment. Taken as a whole, this translation of this trilogy may be the very best novel I’ve ever read (the only ones that come close to it are Stegner’s Angle of Repose, Winton’s Cloudstreet and one or two Dickens novels).

  8. there’s always literal weight to be considered… for that reason I wouldn’t take “Infinite Jest” “House of Leaves” or “Kristen Lavransdatter”…. I’d take something that weighs less than a pound, and hope that my fellow trekkers have books to trade

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