A true sense of place: My 10 favourite books

Following on from my last (slightly off-topic) post about bookshops, I felt inspired to explore my oak bookshelf to find the books which, to me, have managed to convey a true and magical sense of place. Resisting the temptation of selecting publications from the technical worlds of mapping or geography, I went in search of books I have read and loved because of how they made me feel. A place is not just defined by its position in 2D or 3D space, but also by the time, feelings and senses. This also makes it impossible for anyone to ever to (re)visit the same place – except maybe in a book.

I hope you enjoy the list, and please do let me know if you can recommend any more!

1. 30 Days in Sydney – A wildly distorted account, by Peter Carey

As a student I spent two years in this magical city. Using a masterful blend of autobiography, fact and fiction, Peter Carey truly manages to capture the Australian spirit of Sydney, from its maritime heritage to its lush outback. Simply amazing, especially if you have visited or lived there.

2. A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, by Andrew Chaikin

Published in 1994, the 25th anniversary of the first moon landing, this is the most complete and authoritative account of the Apollo Astronauts’ experiences. As I read it I had to keep pinching myself along the way – all of this really happened. I don’t think you’ll find a better read to get a sense of what it’s like to go to the moon, and then walk on it.

3. Quiet for a Tuesday: Solo in the Algerian Sahara, by Tom Stoppard

Similarly to the moon landings this is a beautiful account, accompanied by stunning images, that conveys a great sense of the desert’s space, light, and peacefulness. This time I didn’t have to pinch myself because I have been lucky enough to experience the Sahara myself during my days in oil exploration. This book transported me right back there.

4. Uncommon Places: The Complete Works, by Stephen Shore (Photographer)

This photo essay is just unbelievable. Reprinted in glorious high-definition, it captures Stephen Shore’s large format images of American scapes in the 1970s and 1980s. The quality of the pictures is so sharp you’d think they were taken yesterday. They not only preserve a particular era, the images also transform boring places such as car parks into fascinating spaces you never knew you wanted to explore.

5. The Life and Times of the Thunderbold Kid, by Bill Bryson

I was born neither in America nor in the 1950s, but this book captures Bill Bryson’s childhood so well that it brought back long lost memories of my own childhood which took place 20 years later, thousands of miles away. Similarly to Uncommon Places, this book manages to capture a place and time in an absorbing yet utterly different way. And because it’s written by Bill Bryson, it also makes you laugh!

6. On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

Having read this novel a couple of years ago I can’t remember much about it except for one inconspicuous scene where one of the main characters goes on a bike ride along a country lane. McEwan’s masterful description of this ordinary setting took me down memory lanes that may or may not have existed in my life – immersed in green hills, fragrant fields, and hopeful youth. This is the stuff that powerful writing is made of, and it is impossible to do it justice here (certainly not with my writing!).

7. Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will, by Judith Schalansky

A beautiful and original work of art. This is indeed an atlas (it includes maps) but not as you know it. Schalansky, inspired by the Cold War’s travel restrictions in her native East Germany, compiled this world atlas of far-away islands so that the imagination is free to roam. Each of these islands is steeped in history but, even today, logistically very difficult to reach. The atlas deliberately blurs the lines between fact and fiction, taking you on a journey where it is unclear where history ends and the author’s dreams and imagination begin. A pure delight.

8. The Wave: In Pursuit of the Ocean’s Greatest Furies, by Susan Casey

This book masterfully intertwines a good story with oceanography, shipping, sailing and big-wave surfing. This is a book that conveys a true sense of the ocean like nothing else I’ve read (e.g. Moby-Duck – no typo here – doesn’t come close). I never thought a book about waves could be such a page-turner. And even though it is entirely non-fiction, the climax at the end is incredible. Spoiler alert: this is what a big wave feels like.

9. The Wild Places, by Robert Macfarlane

Macfarlane is probably Britain’s best wilderness writer, and this book doesn’t disappoint. I’ve already read it twice and will probably read it twice more. Even if you’re not interested in Britain’s wild places in particular, this masterpiece will transport you to peaceful and beautiful spaces whenever you need to. I particularly loved Macfarlane’s account of his overnight mountain bivvy on Red Pike in the Lake District where, under the stars, he suddenly found a snow-capped winter wonderland all to himself.

10. Eternity: Our Next Billion Years, by Michael Hanlon

This book takes place and time to the next level. Until I read it I had never fully appreciated the true timescale of human endeavour compared to the evolution of the universe. Being of a geo-background I take a natural interest in all of the global issues of the day, from climate change to technology to geopolitics, and the challenges at hand can sometimes seem overwhelming. This book really puts the ‘here and now’ into perspective. This sense was also reconfirmed when I later read Tim Flannery’s epic book, Here on Earth, which highlights the widely underestimated ability of nature and humans to adapt to change.

Oh, and one more thing…

11. Monocle magazine, edited by Tyler Brûlé

What the…? A magazine? And of all magazines, Monocle??

Indeed. Just let me explain. True, Monocle is somewhat pretentious – what with the fashion, the adverts for expensive briefcases and Rolexes, or some of the pompous commentary on culture, design and global affairs. Unfortunately it seems to be targeted at globetrotting yuppie hipsters and (wannabe) wealthy elites. But once you get over that, you will find an eclectic mix that truly celebrates places and their people. It champions small-scale entrepreneurism and intelligent city design. It celebrates creativity, passion, design and artisanship, from corner shops to handmade bicycles to Ordnance Survey’s cartography. In a nutshell, this is a monthly publication that might inspire you to believe that the world is fundamentally a good place, and it provides ideas for making it an even better one.

Happy Jubilee Holidays.

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5 thoughts on “A true sense of place: My 10 favourite books

  1. Great post. My picks: ‘Last Evenings on Earth’ by Roberto Bolaño, ‘The New York Trilogy’ by Paul Auster (as well as ‘Sunset Park’), ‘Invisible Cities’ by Italo Calvino (as well as ‘The Path to the Spider’s Nest’, ‘The Castle of Crossed Destinies’ and ‘The Baron in the Trees’), ‘From the Observatory’ by Julio Cortazar and ‘Mu’ by Hugo Pratt (ok this is a comic book).

  2. Hi Thierry, I have 3 of those (6 through 8), perhaps not surprisingly! What would I add or change? Blood River (Tim Buitcher) for sure, perhaps Savage Arena (Joe Tasker) or Touching the Void (Joe Simpson), Brazzaville Beach (William Boyd), all a little obvious as would be anything by Bruce Chatwin (In Patagonia being my pick); China Mieville’s sense of place(s) in The City and The City compelling too while the classic Jupiter’s Travels (Ted Simon) gives the perspective of place(s) from two wheels; Ryszard Kapuscinski’s ‘The Shadow of the Sun’, not only for the piece on Ghana 1957 but like Tim Butcher for a journalist’s perspective on there and other familiars. And that would make 10 I think; not so esoteric and on reflection makes it easy to age me!

  3. James, Eric, many thanks – how could I forget Bruce Chatwin… I read Patagonia 20 years ago but it disappeared amongst too many housemoves! Ditto with Joe Simpson. I didn’t mention Paul Theroux either – I used to have loads of his books, and I loved his talk last year at the Royal Geographical Society. And Italo Calvino… once read a book of his short stories which I liked, must look up the others that Eric recommends. Thanks guys!

  4. Pingback: Miscellaneous news of 2012-06-07 | visurus

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