6 of the most inspirational books you’ve never heard of

Unlike my friend who just bought NINE MORE floor-to-ceiling IKEA bookcases in hopes that’ll do, I’ve been forced to downsize my book collection. But here are five obscure titles I refuse to part with:

(Warning: This is a literary lark, not some high-falutin’ critic’s snobby “essentials” list.)

1. A Void, translated into English by Gilbert Adair.  

I’ve never read it; it serves as shEEr inspiration. The marvel is that not a single letter “e” — the most common letter in the English language — was used in the making of this 1995 book, except that in the author’s name.

More amazingly, it is based on the original e-less 1969 French novel, La Disparition (“The Disappearance”), by Georges Perec. Again, he couldn’t buy an “e,” but for four in his name.

What’s more, according to Wikipedia, three other unpublished non-e-book English translations exist: A Vanishing by Ian Monk, Vanish’d! by John Lee and Omissions by Julian West. The 300-page novel, with alleged plot and all, has also been translated into German (by Eugen Helmlé as Anton Voyls Fortgang, 1986), Spanish (El secuestro, 1997 — instead of “e” it omits “a,” that language’s most common letter), Turkish (by Cemal Yardımcı as Kayboluş, 2006), Swedish (by Sture Pyk as Försvinna, 2000), Russian (by Valeriy Kislow as Исчезание [Ischezanie], 2005), Dutch (by Guido van de Wiel as ‘t Manco, 2009) and Romanian (Serban Foarta as Disparitia, 2010). Such a feat — no, that word isn’t allowable … nor is “accomplishment” … a “triumph,” then.

Whenever I suffer writer’s block, I gaze upon this book, and off I go; any linguistic assignment seems puny by comparison.

Photo by Terry Byrne, October 2009. Must be credited if shared.

2. Simon & Schuster’s Guide to Mushrooms.

Pennsylvania produces about 443 million pounds of mushrooms a year, its largest cash crop; it also produced me, but the coincidences don’t end there.

Admittedly, I fancy mushrooms, plain or fancy, and have great respect and reverence for fungi, having taken survival training in Michigan’s wintry wilderness and enjoyed a foray into the “magic” mushroom in the eclectic Eighties, my version of the psychedlic Sixties. I even went on a binge last year photographing ‘shrooms in the ‘hood (a favorite shot, above).

Including this book on this list goes beyond mushrooms, though — I own oodles of identification manuals, but, c’mon, this is the Bible of freakin’ mushrooms. I don’t know how many “begats” there are in King James’ version, but there are 420 types of mushrooms detailed in this guide, covering only the United States and Europe. Not in my wildest dreams could I identify that many fungi, but whenever I want to be reminded of the diversity of life, I contemplate the mushroom, lowlier even than the lily of the field.

A "weed" growing in my yard. (I don't know what it's called; even with a handy encyclopedia, it's hard to identify plants if you don't know their family name.) Photo by Terry Byrne.

Elevating the mystique is the inherent danger involved in distinguishing toxic vs. edible, mushrooms vs. toadstools. And wouldn’t the Garden of Eden have been, oh, such a cooler story if Eve had tempted Adam with a mushroom?

Speaking of the Garden of Eden, I’ll slip in another botanical gem, a massive one, which I keep on the arm of a couch where there is no end table. It serves as a coaster for my coffee or to level my laptop: The American Horticultural Society’s A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants. Pawing through its pages, I landscape the dream garden I’ll never tend. This whimsical book was purchased for $20 for me by a teenager I had known 15 years — we were at the bookstore one day, and I was eyeing it like a kid at the puppy palace, and she selflessly and surprisingly satisfied my craving with her first credit card. Treasures both, gift and giver.

3. 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

 Edited by Steven Jay Schneider.

(Yeah, a book about movies — warned you this lit list was lowbrow.)

File this tome under “The Poor Man’s Bucket List.” All you need is a Netflix subscription and lots and lots of idle time — or about four months, if you did nothing else but slept eight hours a day. If the doctor gave me only four months to live, though, I doubt I’d spend it watching movies. And good luck finding some of the titles, such as 1930’s Zemlya (“Earth”), from the Soviet, yes, Soviet, silent-film era, by Aleksandr Dovzhenko. 

This volume holds special sentimental value because it sparked our young family’s “movie night” tradition, in which we took turns picking the weekend rental; as the kids aged, we graduated into edgier ratings. They still won’t forgive me for choosing 1981’s Body Heat (page 677) — check one off!

Most people won’t remember that Mickey Rourke was the arsonist in this movie co-starring William Hurt and Kathleen Turner. Here is his scene:

I’ll keep this book on hand as a cheap life insurance policy because, at last count, I’d seen only 384 of the must-see 1,001. 

4. Why You Life Sucks (And What You Can Do About It)

By Alan H. Cohen

Stop kvetching, this book nags, speaking straight at ME, just like Avenue Q’s It Sucks to Be Me. With humor and hope, it provides anecdotes for all of life’s ill-perceived ills.

An example … discussing why people waste their talents: “People live unfulfilling lives because 1) They do not believe in themselves enough to express their talents; 2) They feel guilty about accepting money for their talents; and 3) They do not take action steps to build their livelihood around their talents. All of these situations are tragic. Such people end up doing things they don’t really care about, they struggle materially, and wither emotionally because their life does not embrace their passion.”

Another route to “Follow your bliss” — yet easier to digest, or suck it up, with a straw. I keep the book in my bedside drawer, as if it were Gideons Bible, for my darkest nights of despair

5. The New Astrology by Suzanne White.

Why not confess my guilty-pleasure shelf of funky astrology books. As a Halloween baby, I’ve always been open to such junk-science topics as hauntings and Tarot card-reading (not global warming; I mean, I’m open to it, I’m just not including it in any “junk-science” category, thank you). 

Gifted to me around the time I was contemplating marriage, this book bizarrely weds Western sun signs with the Chinese “year of the _____” animals. (It did always bother me how an entire grade of school peers supposedly shared personality traits in China.) The fruit of this “mind-boggling” research: 144 brand-new astrological combinations! What grand horrorscope!!!

Despite the “fact” astrological signs have been astro-illogically thrown off their axis lately (try The Beginning of Time), I also have a collection of zany books breaking down each sun sign into four phases of the moon, then cross-referencing every “week” for compatibility with every other week, in relationships from romance, work, friendship and parent-child. The paper and binding alone were worth the $50 apiece price (oh, right; these were also gifts). Imagine the fun, upon meeting someone, to cross-index all possible relationships! Fun, if you enjoy good fiction.

Honestly, I’ve tried to unload these books; I stuff them in a box for transport, then, at the last minute, they mysteriously levitate back to the shelf. Spooky.

6. Markings by Dag Hammerskjöld.

Finally, we all have books on our shelves that are inscribed (is there an app for that?), whether by authors or friends. When I was in junior high, the smartest boy in school gave me this soul-searching book by the Swedish secretary-general of the United Nations killed in a plane crash during his tenure — and check out the $4.95 for a first-print hardcover!

It may have meant nothing but a schoolboy crush or him showing off, but the gesture resonated with my budding intellect. The book’s yellowed pages smell as old as the wisdom it contains, passages like:

“We carry our nemesis within us: yesterday’s self-admiration is the legitimate father of today’s feeling of guilt.”

I feel guilty never haven given anything comparable to John. The simple inscription, “To Terry, Love, John, Norcross,” makes me feel even guiltier, as if the surname was an afterthought by someone who doubted he’d be remembered. Yet I’ve often wondered what became of Mr. John Norcross.

John, if you’re out there: Here’s a super poke!