Books for Everyday Carry
Remember when people who love books actually carried books around with them? Remember when people read books on subways and airplanes, in waiting rooms and lobbies, at playgrounds and in coffee shops? Remember when books marked the intervals of our lives, the static moments and quiet times in between being busy and being busy?
Instead, now, we stare at our phones, playing games or reading the news, scrolling through the feeds of our social media accounts, drifting along the flotsam and jetsam of internet Surf-dom. I am guilty of this, too, and lately I have been wondering how different my life would be if I quit doing that and instead read more books when “killing time” (a silly and problematic colloquialism which reveals how little we spend thinking about the limited amount of time we actually have in this life.) It’s so easy to check in on my Instagram feed—after all, my friends are in Yellowstone and maybe they posted another picture!—or to use Twitter as a news feed—what if something happened and I miss it?!—or to check my email even though I just checked it ten minutes ago—what if someone wants to order a book!
But what I pay attention to defines who I am and thus to be inattentive to my habits of attention is to be inattentive to my own soul. In the interest of killing time I find I’m actually wasting it, and that’s darn near a sin.
So, while I am not great at it yet, I am trying to be increasingly conscious about the reasons I am using my phone, to use it as a tool and not as a time-waster. To fill those static moments, the quiet intervals, with books and the truth, goodness, and beauty they contain. And not just for the sake of productivity, but to fill those intervals with true leisure (more on this in a future post).
But not all books are ideal for such moments. Many of the best books demand extensive periods of concentration or beg for long stretches of page-turning. So I have been thinking about the sort of books that do suit these intervals. I have started referring to them as “Pocket Books for Everyday Carry” and have been curating a list.
These are books that share a few characteristics making them ideal for this purpose, the kind of books I can turn to when I have spare moments I’d like to use wisely. Each of them are:
Available in relatively small and yet still attractive editions. These books need to fit in the pocket of my bag or in the console of my car.
Are not terribly long. I think only a few of the books I list below are over 150 pages. Too long and they can become cumbersome or burdensome, which is not what we want for this kind of book.
Can reasonably be read in short spurts. You never know how long your kid will last on the playground at the park before they have to use the bathroom or when the dental hygienist will you call back to get that crown put on your tooth.
Are full of ideas and questions that can be contemplated in bite sizes. It’s not that these books aren’t deep, but there might be a few days between times when you dig in. So they need to be full of things worth thinking about, but structured such that you can dip in and out.
I have divided this list into categories. This is how my mind naturally works, but I also like to have one everyday carry book of fiction going alongside one everyday carry book of non-fiction. So I have divided my list into the categories of nature writing, philosophy, spiritual writing, fiction, and poetry. These categories aren’t perfect, nor are they comprehensive, but for the sake of the exercise I accept their limitations. I find that these are the categories I most often turn to for an everyday carry book. (I do not often turn to history, for example, in large part because so many history books are long and dense—in a good way.) This list is very personal, but hopefully you find something worth reading, too (and in the comments please feel free to share your own recommendations).
[For what it’s worth: I did create a Bookshop.org list of these titles for those who want to grab one or two through Goldberry Books.]
Luckily, many publishers of nature writing produce nice, readable editions that fit the everyday carry theme perfectly and I will begin by highlighting a few of those.
A few years back Counterpoint released two books of Wendell Berry’s non-fiction as part of their Counterpoints series, which they say features “palm-size[d] books . . meant to stay with you, whether safely in your pocket or long after you turn the last page.” Both Think Little and Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer feature Berry at his irascible, thoughtful best. In fact, the latter volume includes his 1972 essay, “A Native Hill,” which I think every American should read once a year. It’s cultural criticism and nature writing at once, and in each case is profound and challenging.
Of course, if you like nature writing then it would be hard to do better than my current non-fiction everyday carry book, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, which I am reading as a mass market paperback and thus is somewhat cheating. By page number, it is the longest book on this list, but its style and substance are perfect for what I am looking for. Often compared to classics like Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, Desert Solitaire, which was published in 1968, chronicles Abbey’s years as a park ranger in Arches National Park. It features some of the loveliest nature writing I’ve read.
Before I move on from the nature writing category I want to make a quick plug for Sy Montgomery’s delightful new book, The Hawk’s Way: Encounters with Fierce Beauty, which tells the story of her relationship with a hawk named, Jazz—a true bird of prey and no pet. It’s a beautifully made little book and would be a great gift for a nature lover. Montgomery’s previous book, The Hummingbird’s Gift, also fits the theme.
I am not, by nature, an enthusiast of books of philosophy. This is not to say I don’t enjoy philosophy (all people enjoy philosophy rightly done), but I find so many books of philosophy to be drearily dry and I can’t get past it (yes, this is a flaw in me). I do, however, deeply love when a book of philosophy explores complicated ideas in an eloquent and erudite way. Consider, for example, Aristotle for Everybody, by Mortimer J. Adler, and Confessions of a Heretic, a collection of essays by the late, great Roger Scruton, both which fit perfectly into a jacket pocket during a long walk. Confessions of a Heretic, in particular, has been a good friend to me this year.
Be sure to keep copies of The Art of Living by Epictetus; The Emperor’s Handbook, David and Scot Hicks’ wonderful translation of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius; and one or two of Princeton’s University Press’s series, “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers,” such as their collection of Cicero (How to Tell a Joke) or Horace (How to Be Content).
Oh, one more: Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes, by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Kline is a fun one to keep around. It’s a good conversation starter while waiting at the mechanic.
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For the sake of conversation and list-makery, I’m going to employ the catch-all term “spirituality” rather than force any of these titles into a more specific genre of religious writing. One of the reasons I am making this choice is because I want to mention Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk, which is one part nature writing, one part memoir, one part collection of essays that were published elsewhere.
It is proof that Dillard is one of the greatest prose writers of the last fifty years and its length and profundity make it a great example of the kind of book I’m going for with this list. Each paragraph is so loaded with goodness that you can read for five minutes and be filled up.
Speaking of great prose, Frederick Buchner died last week, and his book The Remarkable Ordinary is a good example of an everyday carry book. Remembering the man, Alan Jacobs wrote that Buechner’s “writing was . . . emergent from speech” and that Buchner “manifested . . . a kind of gently ironic but faithful and hopeful bemusement.”
It might be a tad cliche to include Thomas Merton on a list of spiritual writing, but the Pocket Thomas Merton might be the Platonic ideal of the everyday carry book.
Jon Sweeney’s newest book, Feed the Wolf: Befriending Our Fears in the Way of Saint Francis, which contemplates fifteen spiritual practices inspired by one of the world’s most beloved saints.
And Alexander Schmemann’s very brief but very good, Oh Death Where Is Thy Sting, which is written by an Orthodox priest but beloved by readers of all traditions. I read this one every year during Holy Week.
This is obviously not a list for long, wandering novels, but there is plenty of fiction that can be read in smaller increments, especially short stories. So here are a few collections of stories I recommend keeping around.
Counterpoint recently released a delightful little edition of Gina Berriault’s Seven Stories as part of the aforementioned “Counterpoints” series, and it is full of some of the most underrated short fiction written last century.
Meanwhile, Pushkin Press has published several collections of stories by Isaac Babel (Of Sunshine and Bedbugs), Chekov (The Beauties: Essential Stories), and Dostoevsky (A Bad Business: Essential Stories). If you’ve never read the stories of these three masters, well, you should remedy that. These editions are roughly the size of my Leuchtturm pocket notebook and are perfect for stuffing in your back pocket or in your backpack to read while on a walk.
If you know me or have listened to the podcast for a while, you know I am an appreciator of short novels. I love concision and I am constantly in awe of the way great writers can say so much, so efficiently. So here are five short novels worth including in an everyday carry book list, some of which I’ve mentioned on the show before.
Chess Story by Stefan Zweig: Technically a novella—and not for the faint of heart—but the Austrian Stefan Zweig, who died in 1942, was an influential figure in twentieth-century literature and remains popular in continental Europe even as his reputation has waned in North America and the UK. This is his last great work.
Things Fall Apart by China Achebe: Achebe’s novel is roughly 200 pages, so it might be slightly too long to quality for this list. But pound-for-pound, if you will permit the colloquialism, it is among the best novels in world literature and is a great choice for the reader looking to expand her bookish horizons.
A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr: Yes, we did it on the show and so it’s been talked about extensively. I will just say this: read it again. You won’t regret it.
Invisible Ink by Patrick Modiano: I mentioned this book, which I love, on our best-of-2020 episode. It’s a French, existentialist mystery-ish novel about a missing person. It’s impressionistic, a tad bizarre, beautifully written, and mesmerizing. Give it a shot.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan: This novella about an Irish village in the days before Christmas 1985 is ostensibly a holiday book, but more than that is an ambitious, thoughtful, ambiguous novel about family, conscience, and a community’s fraught shared history. It’s a finalist for the 2022 Booker Prize, for what it’s worth.
Poetry collections are great for everyday carry. Most poems can be read in just a few minutes, re-reading a poem is almost always rewarded, and most collections, especially those by single poets, are typically relatively short. I certainly recommend collections by Rhina Espaillat, Ted Kooser, Wendell Berry, Joy Harjo, and Maurice Manning if you are looking for a contemporary poet to read, but the Everyman Poetry Collections, especially Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters, are ideal.
They’re pocket-sized, attractive, and durable. The series includes books organized by theme (love poems, garden poems, etc.) poet (Keats, Wordsworth, Dickinson, etc.), or form (sonnets, villanelle, etc.)
So that’s my list of great everyday carry books. Here’s the Bookshop.org list. Time to get back to reading . . .
Do you have any go-tos? Let us know in the comments!
Love this post from stem to stern. I appreciate the list. I wish there were ways to search bookseller sites for EDC (every day carry) especially in physical dimensions. I love books that measure around 4.25" by 6".
Thanks for the great recommendations. I read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness back when it was published. His description of Arches has stuck with me all these years. The Roger Scruton book is a gem too!