The Nature of Books

Books leave marks on our lives that may or may not be indelible, the word my grade school nuns taught us to describe the imprint of the sacrament of confirmation. That mark would last so long God would see it on our souls, no matter how little else was left by the time we met up with him.
    I’ve swum through the words of thousands of books in total immersion; yet most of them disappear from my memory the way water evaporates from my body when I climb from the pool to lie in the sun.
    Most, but not all.
    Unaccountable books live on from all the years of my life, recurring unbidden to make me feel all over again the way I did when I read their words.
    Remembered or forgotten, all of them, I suspect, have made me who I am, devoted to the unfolding of story, fascinated by the revelation of character, living by the shape and rhythm of sentence.
    So it seems to me that rather than leaving marks on our minds and lives, books are like the food we eat: They shape us.
    I’ve read and listened to books all my life, but summer remains my reading season, for it was in the unrestricted summers of girlhood that I could read through one day and into the next — as I did with Tess of the d’Urbervilles when I was 16 or 17.
    I think I’m not alone in this. What reader doesn’t imagine feasting on books all through the summer?
    So Bay Weekly’s annual Reading Guide is a summer seasonal, and, as I plan it, I imagine you taking your book out of doors and settling together in a comfortable chair, set where you can move from sun to shade and read the day away. If you choose to read into night, you can come indoors when the light fails and the mosquitoes bite.
    Even better, let your book tell stories of nature.
    To make the image your own, in this year’s Reading Guide you’ll find beloved books about nature. The list includes books for all ages. Children’s books are listed separately, because younger readers might not enjoy all the adult selections. On the other hand, adult readers may find great pleasure in the children’s books, as our recommenders have.
    I wish one of them were the nature book I remember from childhood, a series of stories — including one about owl pellets — told by an old naturalist. I’d love to re-read that book, but neither my recommenders nor my online search turned it up. Perhaps you’ll remember it? The sense of magic that book awakened, and the habit of looking and listening, remain, though the title has flown.
    What book turned you to nature’s ways? Did John McPhee’s Coming into the Country send you to Alaska? Did Thomas McGuane’s Ninety-Two in the Shade turn your heart to Key West? Did Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer tune you into the wild energy of nature? Or did a simple poem, like William Wordsworth’s “My Heart Leaps Up,” send you reeling?
    If you followed any such trail, you’ll know that books, however powerful, are only imitations of the real thing.
    But books tell you a story, and those stories are the legends that give meaning to life, human and natural.
    Among the books you’ll find recommended in these pages are three stories of rivers, the Hudson River, the Roosevelt River (formerly the Rio da Divide) and the Missouri, which is, as you read, redefining its territory as it floods through Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. You won’t be surprised to learn that two of these are recommended by riverkeepers.    
    Also on the water, Four Fish, the latest book to go big by showing us there’s more to fish than dinner.
    Three are adventures and histories at the same time: Steve Carr’s own book, Canyon Chronicles, an R-rated saga in the Grand Canyon national forests, and his recommended book, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, a biography of explorer John Wesley Powell. For an on-water adventure, Jane Elkin recommends Motoo Eetee, a novel of shipwreck and survival.
    Two combine nature and human enterprise: The Disappearing Spoon, a book about nature’s 118 elements charted in the Periodic Table; and Let My People Go Surfing, the education of the reluctant businessman who founded the outdoor outfitter Patagonia.
    Two are human reflections on nature, one a book of poems by wise and accessible Mary Oliver; the second a book of poems and stories about birds.
    Enjoy your summer reading. Perhaps I’ll run into you under a shade tree or an umbrella, and you can tell me what books we’ve missed.