You Must Read This

Words by
Sally Wilson
Images by
Sally Wilson
| June 30, 2016

When I lived in Mexico large cardboard boxes sealed with duct tape would routinely arrive at my door. Each was postmarked New York.

“¿Lo tienes? ¡Es pesado!” (“Have you got it? It’s heavy!”) the delivery guy might say, struggling under the weight, and thankful to be handing the great mass over, but still apologetic. “No te preocupes, tengo músculos!” (“Don’t worry, I have muscles!”), I’d assure him in Spanish, genuinely thrilled to find a practical use for whatever vocab I was learning. I’d then flex my biceps, just to make sure of the message.

Back then I was doing a lot of rooftop gardening, so, while I am no luchadora, no Muhammad Ali, my natural upper body strength was enough to alleviate the concerns of most couriers who arrived at my door carrying 5 kilogram boxes postmarked New York.

Inside the boxes were books. Brand new, gleaming stacks of them. And a note – “Thought you might like these…” or “You must read this!signed Jynne Dilling Martin. It’s a lifelong friend who sends care packages (paperbacks, goji berries and blocks of Mast Brothers chocolate) across the border from US to Mexico when you are dangerously out of novels, and far from home.

Emma Straub’s The Vacationers was in one drop. Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies and Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings were in the next.

I’d garden in the mornings before the sun got too intense and, afterwards, spend the hours dedicated by some to the long lunch and the siesta, reading.

If you can trust someone with a book recommendation, then you can probably trust them with your life too. As it happens, in late 2014, Jynne chose to trust me with the wheel greasing and deal-making for her three-day, fifty-person wedding celebrations in Mexico City, and our reliance on each other for good reading material has boomed ever since.

Jynne Dilling Martin
Associate Publisher and Director of Publicity, Riverhead Books and author of We Mammals in Hospitable Times (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2015)

What’s the last book you read?
Pico Iyer, The Art of Stillness.

What is one of your all-time favourite books?
Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I love how she reframes getting lost as something important, something to value: it forces us to be present with great uncertainty and mystery, and how beautiful that is.

Will you share a quote from a book that is meaningful in your life now?
“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” – Joseph Campbell.

What book would you recommend to me?
From another incredible traveler, Rebecca West, her magnum opus Black Lamb Grey Falcon. She journeyed far and wide as a woman alone, and wrote exquisite prose about her experiences and observations. Her ferocity, independence, and sense of curiosity about the world inspires me; plus, she can be incredibly funny (“People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”)

“You must read this!” is a catch-cry that relies on trust. I use it selectively, and while I’m happy to talk about books, only rarely do I make recommendations. Just like I wouldn’t suggest you put a cactus in the furthest corner of a dimly lit, humid bathroom, I wouldn’t push one of my favourite authors, Karl Ove Knausgaard, on anyone lacking time and patience.

Knausgaard, a greying Norwegian, who appears in most of his press photos unshaven and gloomy, is a champion of the long and winding novel.

His best known book, My Struggle, is in fact six books and after three years I’ve only just reached the halfway mark in the fourth of them – which gives me two and a half more to look forward to.

Knausgaard is the type of writer who can spend two or three pages describing a tree, how that tree reminds him of a sharp word issued by his dad, perhaps when he was twelve-years-old, and how that makes him feel now, as a writer of bestselling, autobiographically-based fiction in his forties. In the third book of the saga, on a page I dog-eared and return to, Knausgaard observes this:

“It was strange how all large trees had their own personalities, expressed through their unique forms and the aura created by the combined effect of the trunk and roots, the bark and branches, the light and shadow. It was as if they could speak. Not with voices, of course, but with what they were, they seemed to stretch out to whoever looked at them. And that was all they spoke about, what they were, nothing else. Wherever I went on the estate or in the surrounding forest, I heard these voices, or felt the impact these extremely slow-growing organisms had.”
Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Boyhood (Book Three)

This is the kind of thoughtful statement that pushes my enthusiasm to pure, unadulterated levels, where I have to be careful not to kill off friends and neighbours with undiscriminating lava flows of suggested reading. I do recommend reading that one page though, provided you like Norwegian-style knits and nostalgic records as much as life-affirming observations about trees. Then, if you enjoy it enough, you might try the first of his My Struggle books on for size.

While I’m trying to persuade you, Knausgaard winds up his pitcher’s arm and proves himself again, further on in Book Four:

“There were trees everywhere, these beautiful green creations that you never really paid attention to, just walked past; you registered them but they made no great impression on you in the way that dogs or cats did, but they were actually, if you lent the matter some thought, present in a far more breath-taking and sweeping way.”
Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Dancing in the Dark (Book Four)

Reading this, I thought of a text sent by a friend the other day. Liv wrote: “I was walking home past my favourite tree. I always like to go inside under its canopy if I have time. It feels like a magic room. Underneath the tree a strange sensation came over me, like I was being watched. I jumped a little and looked around, because people doing it rough often set up at this time of night, and often in this tree. But there was no-one. I still had the feeling though. I was thinking:

How weird to have this feeling. Maybe it’s the tree watching me?” But it wasn’t the tree. It was a massive kookaburra!”

Olivia Radonich
Gallerist, Tolarno Gallery

What’s the last book you read?
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli.

What is one of your all-time favourite books?
Without hesitation Los Detectives Salvajes (The Savage Detectives) by Roberto Bolaño, because it is intense and overflowing with love, romanticism, passion, madness, spirit and poetry: exactly as life should be.

Will you share a quote from a book that is meaningful in your life now?
“Reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing your ideas, like listening to other people’s ideas, like listening to music, like looking at the view, like taking a walk on the beach.” Roberto Bolaño, 2666

What book would you recommend to me?
Jimmie Durham’s Waiting To Be Interrupted. Selected writings spanning 20 years. He is a genius.

Books and plants go hand-in-hand for me. Both dominate my living spaces and contribute equally to my sense of wellbeing. Without Haruki Murakami novels, Joan Didion and the knowledge that there’s a large genus of flowering plants out there called Philodendrons, I would be a paler version of myself. I discovered this at law school in the late 1990s.

During that phase of my life I spent afternoons in a glasshouse at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, where the Victoria amazonica lilies were kept.

There I read, or just savoured the heat, the humidity and the sense of certainty that those things combined to create. “If you don’t want to, you don’t need to,” is what the heavy air seemed to suggest (and I took that to mean the full stack of constitutional law readings I had waiting). But it was also around that time when I first picked up Didion’s The White Album, and immediately became a fan.

This is what got me:

“In the beginning I met Amado Vazquez not because I knew about orchids but because I liked greenhouses. All I knew about orchids was that back in a canyon near my house someone was growing them in greenhouses. All I knew about Amado Vazquez was that he was the man who would let me spend time alone in these greenhouses. To understand how extraordinary this seemed to me you would need to have craved the particular light and silence of greenhouses as I did: all my life I had been trying to spend time in one greenhouse or another, and all my life the person in charge of one greenhouse or another had been trying to hustle me out… And yet back in this canyon near my house twenty-five years later were what seemed to me the most beautiful greenhouses in the world – the most aqueous filtered light, the softest tropical air, the most silent clouds of flowers – and the person in charge, Amado Vazquez, seemed willing to take only the most benign notice of my presence.”
Joan Didion, ‘Quiet Days in Malibu’ from The White Album

The words “aqueous filtered light”, “silence”, “the softest tropical air” ring true for me, and probably for anyone who has stepped inside a greenhouse and felt the life kept inside it. I suppose what I was doing in the glasshouse, all those lunchtimes ago, was taking refuge in an environment of absolute focus and calm, where conditions were ideal for plants and their growing. This reliance on plants must be in part genetic, because my brother, independently, spent his free time in the gardens while studying medicine and has since amassed a collection of Monsteras to rival Matisse.

Dan Wilson
My brother (formerly a semi-pro baseball player, currently a GP)

What’s the last book you read?
The Man with the Golden Gun by Ian Fleming. James Bond versus a villain with a name like a skin rash (Francisco Scaramanga). Both protagonists seem a little weary of the usual 007 cat-play, and the inevitable showdown comes as a relief for all.

What is one of your all-time favourite books?
Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. For the irreverence with which it treats institutions, for its off-hand distain of hollow authority, and for the reverential pathos it shows toward human relationships in a dismantled community.

Will you share a quote from a book that is meaningful in your life now?
“An evil man threw tobacco in the Macaque Rhesus’ eyes. Just like that…” The last line of Alexander Solzhenistyn’s Cancer Ward. Why I do the things I do, and why I don’t do the things I don’t.

What book would you recommend to me?
I would recommend The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers. Because I think you would like it.

Thanks to the long days of rain, the blades of grass glowed with a deep-green lustre, and they gave off the smell of wildness unique to things that sink their roots into the earth.”

This is what Murakami observed in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, which is the story of a man, Toru Okada, who loses his wife’s cat and finds himself at the bottom of a well. While searching for the cat, Toru makes friends with May Kasahara, his neighbour, who should be at school but chooses to spend her days sunbaking in the backyard instead. She calls him, affectionately, ‘Mr. Wind-Up Bird’.

“Can I be honest with you, Mr. Wind-Up Bird? I mean, really, really, really honest? Sometimes I get sooo scared! I’ll wake up in the middle of the night all alone, hundreds of miles away from anybody, and it’s pitch dark, and I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen to me in the future, and I get so scared I want to scream. Does that happen to you, Mr. Wind-Up Bird? When it happens, I try to remind myself that I am connected to others – other things and other people. I work as hard as I can to list their names in my head. On that list, of course, is you, Mr. Wind-Up Bird. And the alley, and the well, and the persimmon tree, and that kind of thing.”
Haruki Murakami, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

When we first learn to read we do it in company and we do it aloud. As we become more independent, that company fades, the sounds quieten and reading is thought of as a solitary occupation. But there are always connections (the alley, the well, the persimmon tree) and there’s inevitably noise. Take the other day, when I mentioned an Italo Calvino book and said to my friend Fab, “You must read this!”

Fabian Capomolla
The Hungry Gardener

What’s the last book you read?
Italian Ways, Tim Parks. I got put onto his books while I was in Italy, fell in love with them. They are great, relevant, easy reading.

What is one of your all-time favourite books?
The Lorax, because I love reading books to my kids. I love the message of hope and empowerment to make change in this book. I think its message will be relevant to my children’s futures dealing with the environment.

Will you share a quote from a book that is meaningful in your life now?
“We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it’s our life or our possessions and property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand.” – The Alchemist

What book would you recommend to me?
My book, The Hungry Gardener out September 2017! Or maybe the Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart. I can’t help myself but choose a practical book. I just love to learn stuff, which is what dictates my books choices.