Since I can’t reach the top shelf of my bookcase, this list actually includes titles from the second-from-the-top-shelf. However, for various reasons they have earned that spot, placed there with all the honor and distinction of a “top shelf” book. Over the past twenty years of literary experience my reading preferences have changed drastically, especially during ages 5 to 15 and again after university when I learned to read for fun again.
Currently, my “top shelf” is a place for books that make an impression on me. These books made me pause, consider what I had just read, and not just slide them in any ol’ place on the bookcase. They might be written in a style I aspire to or are so exceptional I can only dream about such an accomplishment. Sometimes they are just books I really, really enjoyed and probably will reread. Sometimes I am asked for book recommendations or like to share an obscure story I’ve read so even though these books are hanging out on the shelf, they are still very much on my mind.
For Part 1, here are five, all non-fiction, books that currently reside on my “top shelf”:
1. The Voyage of the Rose City: An Adventure at Sea, by John Moynihan Spiegel & Grau, 2011.
This book recounts Moynihan’s experiences when he leaves his private college and senator father behind and signs on as a deckhand on a cargo ship in 1980, visiting places many people would never dream of in a very unconventional way. A significant portion of the book is set on the ship which gives insight into what it would be like to spend months at a time at sea. The combination of a travel story and personal journey, including a hard look at the socioeconomic issues at hand, blend together beautifully and naturally. He not only wrote it well, he actually experienced it.
How I Found It: The Seattle Public Library. I read an article about cutting costs in which the author advised “consider the library your primary form of entertainment.” I took his advice and along the way found this book which I enjoyed so much I bought a copy.
2. The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine, by Benjamin Wallace, Three Rivers Press Reprint Edition, 2009.
In a nutshell, this is a very curious story centered around a fake bottle of wine attributed to be Thomas Jefferson’s and sold at auction for the highest amount paid for a bottle of wine ever. Wallace establishes the context of this story very with the background of vintage wines and auction houses but maintains a literary narrative that keeps you absorbed until the end. The recurring role of Michael Broadbent, a Christie’s wine expert, incorporates a very intriguing, and mysterious character. With the benefit of retrospection Wallace gradually reveals how this bottle of wine fooled the greater vintage wine community. I credit it with the majority of my knowledge to date about French wines.
How I Found It: My brother and then my father recommend this book, it came up over dinner I’m sure. My copy is the second or third in the family.
- The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, by Marilyn Johnson; Harper Annotated Edition, 2006.
Johnson’s collection about obituaries doesn’t follow a chronological narrative but makes a logical progression through the history of obituaries and the author’s personal experiences. After taking the reader to the heart of the obituary world at the Sixth Great Obituary Writers International Conference, Johnson builds on this experience with the more nuanced side of obituary appreciation. I will never look at obituaries the same way again and indeed, I now actually look at them.
How I Found It: My parents. While my father is an avid non-fiction reader my mother, who holds down fiction for the family, also really enjoyed this book. I did take the book aboard a boat so now it is a slightly water stained, less formal copy.
4. 99 Drams of Whiskey: The Accidental Hedonist’s Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink, by Kate Hopkins, St. Martin’s Press First Edition, 2009.
This book brings together several things I love: Scotland, travel, whiskey, and history. In her book, Hopkins tours the major whiskey producing regions in Scotland, Ireland, the U.S. and Canada. Within this travel story she interweaves a well researched history of whiskey and shares her ever-growing knowledge about whiskey production. The travel narrative seems a very approachable way to delve into a dense topic such as whiskey. She basically has my dream job.
How I Found It: The Seattle Public Library wins again! A simple search of “whiskey” and “whisky” lead me to a niche section of the catalog. This book stood out as a narrative tale among reference books and didn’t disappoint.
5. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe, Picador Trade Paperback Edition, 2008.
One of the first nonfiction books I really enjoyed during my freshman year of college. I was also able to cite it in an academic paper about the 1960s counterculture movement. Wolfe’s book has fascinated me for some time now, both his style and story. His ability to draw you into an almost indescribable world and capture a pivotal moment in counterculture is mesmerizing. As he follows Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters the reader experiences something they never would otherwise. Wolfe’s journalistic influences and descriptions really enrich this book for me. (Fun Fact: I just started rereading it!)
How I Found It: When you are 18 and some “cool” older college boys tell you about this “sick” book they just read you might jump on board just like I did. These “cool” boys also taught me about longboarding on campus, introduced me to IPAs, and talked me through driving an F250 truck plus trailer on I-5. Not all of their ideas were great but I do appreciate them for turning me on to “tuning out.”
*All images from the Seattle Public Library catalog