I live in a beautiful part of the world, in the heart of the Swiss Alps. My surroundings are stunning, but in any place – no matter how incredible – sometimes we just get caught up in our own thoughts.
Here are some of the books that have reminded me of just how spectacular life can be. I turn to them for a bit of bibliotherapy when I’m experiencing difficulties or feeling a bit disillusioned.
Reading beautiful writing (and enjoying beautiful illustrations) is one of my best tools to get back to where I want to be; often, back out into the world with mindfulness.
1. The Waves by Virginia Woolf
The Waves is in close contention with Mrs Dalloway for my favourite novel by Virginia Woolf. It’s a beautiful book, layering six voices in monologue; moving from morning until night, from childhood into old age. All against the backdrop of the sea.
The Waves helped to create modern fiction and is a book for all of us who love language.
I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.
2. A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler
A book that will move you to tears – and then make you want to turn back to the beginning and read it again.
It’s a story of the simple life of Andreas Egger, who knows every path and peak of his mountain valley in the Austrian Alps. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking book about what life is really made of; both the little and the big.
Choose whether you’d like to read it in a couple of sittings (like I did on a snow day) or try to savour it for longer. Or read it twice and do both.
You can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment. That’s the way it is.
Another book by Robert Seethaler is The Tobacconist, which is still on my reading list: “a tender, heartbreaking story about one young man and his friendship with Sigmund Freud during the Nazi occupation of Vienna”.
3. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is another lovely collection of different voices, like The Waves (and also All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr).
It’s a warm, vibrant novel, both in setting – Cephallonia, an island west of mainland Greece – and its various personalities. It’s a book that will warm your heart.
Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.
4. The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
I think this is one of the very best mountain memoirs out there, written by a woman in a sea of men. Robert MacFarlane, another of my favourite nature writers, echoes this in Mountains of the Mind and also in his brilliant introduction to The Living Mountain.
Each chapter is focused on a different aspect of a mountain experience; water, frost and snow, air and light, being. And each chapter is divinely written.
Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.
Another favourite quote of mine, from Nan Shepherd’s first book The Quarry Wood: “It’s a grand thing to get leave to live.” This quote is also now featured on some Scottish £5 banknotes.
5. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker
A celebration of slowing down and listening closely; of getting to the meaning beneath the surface. For the price of the book, you get a ticket for one on a stunning inner retreat to Burma. Enjoy the journey.
“When a successful New York lawyer suddenly disappears without a trace, neither his wife nor his daughter Julia has any idea where he might be…until they find a love letter he wrote many years ago, to a Burmese woman they have never heard of. Intent on solving the mystery and coming to terms with her father’s past, Julia decides to travel to the village where the woman lived. There she uncovers a tale of unimaginable hardship, resilience, and passion that will reaffirm the reader’s belief in the power of love to move mountains.” (From the publisher).
And so there must be in life something like a catastrophic turning point, when the world as we know it ceases to exist. A moment that transforms us into a different person from one heartbeat to the next.
6. Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver
Because Mary Oliver truly gets to the beauty of life. She’s one of the finest poetic ambassadors for the natural world of our time. I love how humble her poetry is, how there are no wasted words: “Watch, now, how I start the day / in happiness, in kindness”.
I have the following poem on the wall of the landing of my house, next to a map of Switzerland with a green line of the route I’ve walked across. I see it every morning, and it reminds me to get outside and see the world.
The Old Poets Of China
Wherever I am, the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.
7. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
The book that reinforced my belief that Elizabeth Gilbert truly is a wonderful writer – and a beautiful soul. It’s a story of love and its challenges, the vibrant history of botany, and of footprints left around the globe.
Reading it made me want to buy a big book about plants and flowers with huge hand-drawn pictures. (Note: I haven’t found one yet – does anyone have any recommendations? I did buy the next book on this list, however).
All I ever wanted was to know this world. I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than I knew when I arrived. Moreover, my little bit of knowledge has been added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history– added to the great library, as it were. That is no small feat, sir. Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life.
8. Winter Birds by Lars Jonsson
I received this lovely little hardback last Christmas, after seeing it in a bookshop in Zurich and not being able to stop thinking about the drawings. In recent years, I’ve fallen in love with birds a little (is this what adulthood looks like?) I listen to the song of the birds that live by my house, and I notice their comings and goings as I work. I like to be in tune with nature, so this new interest seems to suit me well.
If you love nature drawings, look up Winter Birds: it’s Lars Jonsson’s celebration of Sweden’s best-loved winter birds. Each one of the forty birds is illustrated beautifully, with text on its identification, cultural history, and the author’s own personal observations.