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January 30, 2009


Originally uploaded by Jape Wisteria.

Every year the aspiring photographer brought a stack of his best prints to an old, honored photographer, seeking his judgment. Every year the old man moved a certain landscape print into the bad stack. At length he turned to the young man: “You submit this same landscape every year, and every year I put it on the bad stack. Why do you like it so much?”

The young photographer said, “Because I had to climb a mountain to get it.”

~Annie Dillard

Years ago…many, many years ago, now…I was taking what I now call affectionately ‘the tour’, a weekly to bi-weekly walkabout around Toronto, shopping in the local book and record stores. This is a ritual that keeps me grounded. I have no illusions about being cultured…I’ve met enough cultured people to know I’m just a bum with above-average spelling ability. I often bristle with too much bravado concerning this, and sometimes it costs me. But when it comes to my meagre education, non-existent typing skills, and complete inability to remember which fork is for salads, I can face the music and pay the piper.

During this particular tour, I landed in Pages, a well-run indy bookstore which is now threatened with extinction due to the consolidation in the Canadian book industry. Pages has everything alternative, interesting, underground, and controversial. Slumming around the new releases area, I came across a book by a reasonably well-known new age writer. Instead of discussing crystals, ESP, UFO’s, or other such new age things, he was writing to boast he had read over 1,000 books in his life. And he had an opinion on all of them. My memory is flawed on this, but my reaction was, “Where does he get off?” My second reaction was:

“A challenge like this must not go unmet.”

About 5 years ago, I started to get very serious about this, and started a list of everything I’ve read. Of course, I don’t own everything I’ve ever read. But as I came across books I’ve read in stores but currently didn’t own, I wrote them down in my trusty Moleskine, and slowly the list grew. And grew. And grew. Until finally, today, I can say this, with confidence:

I have read 1,000 books in my lifetime.

And I’m still a bum who can wicked-spell.

Coincidentally, book # 1,000 was André Kertész’s On Reading. Coincidence. Honest. Seriously.

The criteria for a list like this is completely arbitrary. You can ‘read’ and still not comprehend…there are all sorts of artificial intelligence tests (the Turing Test and the Chinese Room Test) that point this out. To top that off, can you read a book of photographs? Can you read a comic book? Do children read children’s books? Does The Paper-Bag Princess count, considering the level of comprehension it was targeted at?

And what’s a book, anyways? Does vanity press count? Is a text distributed digitally a book? Does reading a Kindle count? Does it have to be bound as a paperback or hardcover? Does reading a magazine like the Queen’s Quarterly cover-to-cover count as a book? Do individual issues of a comic book count (if they do, I’ve read 10,000 books)? Can you read a map? How does format effect content?

Can you read a cookbook? Or a dictionary? Or a thesaurus? Or a telephone book? Does bulk data on paper constitute a reading experience? Although I admit that hearing someone has read a whole telephone book back-to-back would be both impressive and unsettling, I’m at a loss as to whether that would truly count on a list like this.

There is no way to construct a list of 1,000 things you could possibly read that it would be free of criticism. There is just no way. So, whatever. It’s my list, and it adds up to a 4-digit number, and I enjoyed the journey.

Henry has a friend who just finished his doctoral thesis, and has been awarded his Doctorate. Getting one of these things takes a hell of a lot of time and energy. During a dinner discussion, he made this joke about the post-grad process (paraphrasing here): “As you move through the process and are awarded more degrees, your area of expertise narrows to a very precise focus. You start off knowing nothing about everything, and finish knowing everything about nothing.” Wise man.

I can’t say that going through this process has made me much wiser. I’m definitely older than when I started. I can say I’ve learned this:

  • The stories you tell about yourself are always true, irregardless of the facts. The stories you tell about others are always complete bullshit, even when you get the facts right.
  • The stories in books are as real as the stories in the real world. That they never happened is irrelevant and besides the point.
  • Most writers are crazy.
  • Books are like bards and storytellers: they must share what they know with others.
  • Price, heft, binding, accolades, they mean nothing; the only reasonable guideline against which you can measure the value of a book prior to reading it is how it smells.
  • Music helps. Sometimes.

Instead of going through a laundry list of what I’ve read, I thought I’d share some of the things that stopped me so dead in my tracks that I’ve been forever altered by them. Some of these are from books I’ve read all the way through, some from online sources, some from TV shows…some I can’t even remember the source.


There are no opposing camps; there is no struggle. Each writer is a one-man camp, unallied and unarmed, a lone bivouac under heaven.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

You have to proceed almost by accident.
~Barry Lopez, Desert Notes

Always, I am amazed at what we tell, how much faith we put in it. Never really knowing who is listening, how they’re going to take it, where.
~Bronwen Wallace

I ask you to witness — the shovel is brother to the gun.
~Carl Sandburg

Death wasn’t what the church had taught him it would be, but he was used to being lied to by figures of authority.
~Charles DeLint

Look at heaven. Will it give you Paradise or will it give you a stiff neck? Where is the kingdom, if not in the exile who seeks it?
~Eduardo Galeano

Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.
~Georgia O’Keefe

Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.
~Harvey Pekar

A renewal is fruitful only when it goes hand in hand with tradition.
~Igor Stravinsky

Books are like cats, you can’t always hang onto them.
~Jacques Poulin

There was preserved within her the fresh miracle of surprise.
~Jim Morrison

There is no word in any traditional European language which does not either denigrate or patronize the urban poor it is naming. That is power.
~John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

Reality may be too complex for oral transmission. Legends re-create it in a way that is only accidentally false and permits it to travel through the world from mouth to mouth.
~J. L. Borges

We are all born charming, fresh, and spontaneous and must be civilized before we are fit to participate in society.
~Miss Manners (Judith Martin)

Friend, we can see nothing for the dust.
~Lord Dunsany

Since it appears that we make our own heaven here, no doubt we shall have a hand in the heaven of hereafter; and I know what Winnenap´’s will be like: worth going to if one has leave to live in it according to his liking. It will be tawny gold underfoot, walled up with jacinth and jasper, ribbed with chalcedony, and yet no hymn-book heaven, but the free air and free spaces of Shoshone Land.
~Mary Austin, The Land of Little Rain

The trouble with ideology, Alice, is that it hates the private. You must make it human.
~Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion

Poverty is a breeding ground for intelligence and guile.
~Patrick Chamoiseau

It takes a hell of a lot of time to be Prime Minister.
~Pierre Elliott Trudeau

One of the satisfactions of being a Canadian is that one is not expected to be a good example.
~Robertson Davies

Be warned, therefore, that one does not go to hell to light a cigarette.
~Roger Zelazny, This Immortal

“I was born,” the Mouse said. “I must die. I am suffering. Help me. There, I just wrote your book for you.”
~Samuel R. Delaney, Nova

The artist deals with what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words. Is it any wonder that no truly respectable society has ever trusted its artists?
~Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Factory windows are always broken.
~Vachel Lindsay

A final glossary, therefore, cannot be made of words whose intentions are fugitive.
~William S. Burroughs

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