One Wednesday my mother called. “In case I lose my mind,” she said, “Here’s a list of the books I want you to put beside me in ‘the home.’” The fact that her stepfather died of Alzheimer’s has taken increasing hold on her thoughts. My heart tightened at the thought of her mortality, or my own. I wanted to protest, assure her that she was young, 65 is the new 25, you’ll live forever kind of thing. But instead, I said:
“What’s on the list?”
Books had always been a thing for my mother and me. Starting with Goodnight Moon then Winnie-the-Pooh, The Secret Garden, The Hobbit, Pippi Longstocking. When my sisters came along and she lost energy to read long chapters to me before bed (this was before audiobooks), she recorded The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on cassette tape, and I went to sleep under the soft falling snow of Narnia every night for the good part of a year. When I learned to read to myself, she instituted a two-to-one rule—she would choose two books and I could choose one. In this fashion, I worked my way through Dicey’s Song, A Wrinkle in Time, The Egypt Game, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Call of the Wild, and Treasure Island alongside The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High. I was allowed to stay up as late as I wanted, as long as I was reading, which I always was. When I outgrew the children’s canon, long before any teacher would have permitted it, she allowed me to grab anything I wanted from her bookcase: The Name of the Rose, Michener’s The Source, and The Clan of the Cave Bear (which taught me about sex before sixth grade health class). Even during the few strained young adult years in my 20s when I fought to find my independence and hurt her in the process, books were the glue that would put us back together again. “What are you reading?” could pull us out of any downward spiral.
Back to that Wednesday and the phone call about books she’d be taking to “the home.” My mother rattled off at least 20 titles in rapid fire. I could hardly keep up, my cursive galloping across the page. Her list spurred a multiday debate: Are we just talking about books we enjoy the most? Classics? Books that make us think? Do we include childhood favorites? Only books that made a profound difference in our lives? Best by decade? Or literary merit—only the best written?
A few weeks later I started my own list. I’m a few generations out from her health worries, but if the past year reminded us of anything it’s that we have no clue what is to come or how much time we have. I walked through bookstores, scrolled Amazon pages, and read online reviews. So many books, so little time was a refrain. I ordered books by the boxful and read as if I were training for a marathon. For the Forever Bookshelf list, however, we decided those would be devoted to pure pleasure. What books were so delightful, worlds so absorbing, that we could read them over and over and still be left breathless and wanting more.
“Our desert island books,” I said. “The 20 titles you cannot live without.”
“The best part,” my mother said when she’d finalized her list, “Is that if I lose my memory, I’ll have the thrill of reading these as if I’ve never read them before. Imagine reading Little Women for the first time—again.”
My mother’s health is excellent, and I think there will be some solid years between now and the need for her actual Forever Bookshelf. There’s no doubt our lists will evolve as we continue to add lines to our faces and books to our souls. But in a year of pandemics, cultural turmoil, and feeling incessantly overwhelmed, it’s comforting to know that our lists are there. At any moment, we can turn off CNN and access a magic portal. Apparate to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England, Pat Conroy’s North Carolina, Toni Morrison’s American South, Amy Tan’s San Francisco, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, David Whyte’s Ireland, or Karen Russell’s Orange World.
Here are a few prompts to Create Your Ideal Forever Bookshelf (we limited ours to 20 titles each): What books kept you up all night reading? What books could you not put down? What books have you reread more than once? What books changed the course of your life?
- Favorite book in elementary school
- Favorite coming-of-age novel
- Favorite mystery or thriller
- Favorite romance
- Favorite family epic
- Favorite poet/poem
- Favorite self-help/personal growth
- Favorite biography
- Favorite young adult novel
- Favorite classic/s
- Favorite food or travel book
- Favorite memoir
If you make your Forever Bookshelf list, share it—with friends, your parents, colleagues, your kids. I want to hear yours. Together, we can read, alone in our closets tucked up under a blanket; together on Zoom; in the kitchen, looking out at the snow instead of washing the dishes; up late in the middle of the night. We’ll keep reading!
Sara Connell is a bestselling author and founder of Thought Leader Academy. She’s been featured on Oprah, The View, FOX, TEDx and her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping and Forbes. Want to write your own book to add to the bookshelf? Download Sara’s FREE masterclass How to Write A Bestselling Book That Changes Lives.