My Final Forty for Sheltering in Place

Dear Friends and Subscribers:
As we enter our second week of sheltering in place, I’m beginning to run out of activities. I’ve straightened up my closet and bathroom drawers, I’ve paid all my bills, I’ve Zoomed with members of the family I didn’t even realize I was related to, and I’ve decided that cleaning the basement will have to wait for a more severe national crisis.
Instead, I’ve turned to reading books that have been on my shelves for weeks to decades—books that I have always intended to read, books that I loved and want to re-read, and books that I didn’t even know I had. The model for this exercise is Susan Hill’s Howard’s End is on the Landing. In that book, Hill, a British publisher and writer of a certain age, spends a year reading only the books on her own shelves—no library books, no buying new books, no accepting publishers books for reviews. She then wonders ‘what it would be like to have just forty books left to read for the rest of her life’ and goes on to create her list of The Final Forty. I’ve collected those 40 books and have read many of them, finding a few that are indeed jewels that I would never have discovered were it not for Hill.
With hours and days on my hands due to COVID19 and still blessedly well and mostly oriented, I thought it might be fun to try to develop my own list of Final Forty by reviewing my virtual bookshelves via my BookMarks Book Journal. I’ve linked nearly all of the titles to my reviews on the web site, so if any of them look interesting, just click to get a thumbnail review.
Maybe you have some of these on your own shelves and can dive in immediately. Otherwise, local bookstores around Cambridge are offering free delivery or drive-by pickup service, so that service may be available in your community as well. If all else fails, you can have Amazon deliver your books along with your masks and Hazmat Suits.
Good reading, stay safe, be well.
Nothing like Fiction to create a different world peopled with folks you’d never meet even if you weren’t sheltering in place. You can travel to…..
  1. Contemporary Athens and London in Rachel Cusk’s Trilogy: OutlineTransit, and Kudos
  2. The Berkshires in the middle of winter in Edith Wharton’s, Ethan Frome
  3. The Hungarian mountains between the two World Wars in Sandor Marai’s Embers
  4. The South Seas in Joseph Conrad’s Victory
  5. A British colony in West Africa in Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter
Short Stories:
Novels do require a period of concentration that may be beyond that available in the locked down mode, so consider the short story, the briefer, more concentrated option for fiction lovers.
  1. Shirley Jackson’s classic 1948 story from The New Yorker remains a fixture in anthologies and English classes. Don’t miss The Lottery.
  2. Peter Orner, a friend from NH/VT has written a wonderful collection called Maggie Brown and Others.
  3. The late Andre Dubus’s Dancing After Hours has brilliant stories, both tragic and bright.
  4. John Updike has a number of collections, but my favorite is an oldie, Pigeon Feathers.
  5. William Trevor is a dour Irishman, but his Selected Stories are true gems.
On the other hand, Non-Fiction provides information and introduces you to fascinating people, places, and activities which you may have been unable to find the time for before you became a prisoner in your own home:
  1. Books about writing: Robert Caro’s Working, Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd’s Good Prose, John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English
  2. Books about People: John McPhee’s The Headmaster about the man who was headmaster at Deerfield Academy for more than 60 years and his book about the All-American basketball star at Princeton and later New York Senator, Bill Bradley in A Sense of Where You Are.
  3. Books by Bill Bryson whose A Short History of Nearly Everything accurately sums up Bryson’s scope but also his memoir The Thunderbolt Kid as well as At Home, and The Body.
  4. Books about man and his place in the universe in Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind and Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?
When you’ve had enough of serious stuff and are threatening to get closer than 6 feet to someone other than your partner, dive into mysteries especially those which might also make you laugh.
  1. It will be hard to find a better protagonist than Harlen Coben’s Myron Bolitar who is a Jewish former basketball All American drafted by the Celtics who now combines his business as an agent with solving crimes. I particularly liked One False Move.
  2. The late Robert B. Parker wrote more than 2 dozen Spenser books where the literate and romantic Spenser combined with Hawk for great dialogue and mayhem. His final book Sixkill is a good one.
  3. Georges Simenon wrote 72 Inspector Maigret novels mostly sited in Paris in the 1930’s-1950’s. Short on suspense but long on mood and psychology, I’d read them all. You might start with Maigret Rents a Room, but any of them will do.
  4. Tara French is among the newer generation of who-done-it greats. Her Dublin Murder Squad is long on internecine rivalries but that doesn’t stop them from solving complex crimes. I’d start with the first, Broken Harbor.
  5. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher always creates mayhem and murder in any small town he randomly visits. Some of his books I found offensive, but Gone Tomorrow is a good one.
If murder mysteries don’t lift you out of your boredom, let’s aim a bit higher and read some poetry, perhaps the most personal of all genres. Here are some that I have loved and that I guarantee are better than watching Dancing with the Stars reruns.
  1. Donald Hall was an English professor in Ann Arbor when we met and he remained a pen pal for the next 50 years. His Kicking the Leaves and his Selected Poems are superb.
  2. Mary Ruefle is a Vermont poet whose unique Madness, Rack, and Honey will delight you.
  3. Stanley Kunitz who lived to be 100+ wrote The Wild Braid in his late 90’s. Read it for the garden tips as well as the beautiful, lyrical poems.
Mindfulness and Spirit:
When all else fails, you may want to turn to the spiritual. Forget hand washing and masks and get in touch with your inner hazmat suit. The selections here range from two wonderful books from Susan Hill’s list, to more contemporary guides to mindfulness,to the ultimate book of answers and questions, the Bible.
  1. Michael Mayne was the rector at Westminster in London when he wrote a wonderful book about the natural world, faith, and the spirit in Learning to Dance.
  2. Patrick Leigh Fermor spent time visiting Benedictine monasteries in France and his insights into the silent, spiritual life are fascinating and calming in A Time to Keep Silence.
  3. Mindfulness for the beginner to the experienced can be discovered in Tara Brach’s True Refuge, Joseph Goldstein’s Mindfulness, and (for humor as well) Dan Harris’s Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.
  4. The current pandemic would fit in well with the Torah with its plagues, floods, and non-random acts of vengeance and destruction, but its also full of wisdom and fascinating insights into the human condition.