Books that speak volumes

“Knowing another is endless…The thing to be known grows with the knowing.”

Nan Shepherd

We asked people here about the books they value: the ones they share with cracked spines, pages turned over, dust covers slightly torn. Or those bought just last month that are impossible to put down.

Here is the first in our series of books that matter to us. It takes us on a wild ride from inland seagulls to wild swimming, from mountains to Marco Polo and ‘thneeds’.

Seagulls have long lived in our slipstream, following trawlers and ploughs – and now dustcarts. In Landfill, Tim Dee neatly observes urban entanglement with the residual wild. These handsome birds could rise crisply clean straight off a children’s picture book, yet their more recent association with rotting food means we project our disgust onto them. Now we are managing food waste differently, and landfill will not provide good pickings for long. That will be yet another test of their ability to adapt and thrive.

Even as unusual book proposals go, Waterlog must have seemed foolhardy: a journey through Britain, with the author taking a dip in every rock pool, river, mountain tarn and flooded quarry and canal encountered on the way. Roger Deakin brought alive the visceral intensity of wild swimming and made a wider public yearn for greater access to wild water and the landscapes in which they are set. Less desirably, it also turned Deakin into quite an authority on river pollution.

No one celebrates the exuberant diversity of cities like Jane Jacobs, and the marvellous freedom that they bring. US urban planning policy in the 1950s favoured the blasting through of new highways and abandoning public transit. Meanwhile she was comparing street life to an intricate ballet, and championing community based approaches to urban planning. The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written by someone who appreciated what makes cities such fun to live in.

Jane Jacobs also recognised that the only settlements that do not have problems are dream cities.  In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities  we listen into a running conversation between Kublai Khan and the explorer Marco Polo, in which Polo describes the incredible cities he has visited. They turn out to be cities of his imagination, made of desires and fears, but all based on his hometown, Venice. An extraordinary novel about place and the power of the imagination.

The Living Mountain is a sublime meditation on how we relate to the world around us. Written during WWII, Nan Shepherd received a polite letter of rejection and left her short manuscript in a drawer until 1977 when Aberdeen University Press printed a small edition. Its welcome reprint eight years ago was thanks to Robert Macfarlane coming across it. He pointed out that most works of mountain literature are written by men, focusing on the goal of the summit. ‘Nan Shepherd’s aimless, sensual exploration of the Cairngorms is bracingly different.’  Shepherd spent a lifetime walking ‘into” the mountains, as she put it – not just up, over and around them.

W G Hoskins realised that landscapes are a storehouse of memory. With his 1955 masterpiece, The Making of the English Landscape, he changed forever how we experience places. Where we see a picturesque scene of rolling hills, distant spires and wooded valleys, Hoskins shows us the line of a Bronze Age trackway, the ghostly impression of an open-field system, the gridiron pattern of an industrial town, or the footprint of a Roman villa. He reminds us why we must be sensitive to the land and its past.

Finally, for now, the question “Why fit in when you are born to stand out?” is what Dr Seuss is being celebrated for right now. But the book he was most pleased to have written is The Lorax. 

Written in 1971, it chronicles the environmental decimation that followed the sacrifice of a valley of Truffula trees, for innovative manufacturing. “I’m doing no harm” protested the Once-ler with his axe.“This thing is most useful! This thing is a thneed … a fine something-that-all-people-need.”  Years later, the only remaining Truffula seed is tossed to a young person listening to the Once-ler’s story of how it went so horribly wrong. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

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