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My Ideal Bookshelf

by Neal Coonerty

Let’s face it—it is a challenge to find a gift for a 60-something dad. At that age, ties are no longer needed. By then, another putter, shirt, belt, or a pair of socks is less than ideal. But last holiday season my kids met the challenge and found a great gift for their dad: My ideal bookshelf memorialized in a painting.

It started, as many things do in our family, with a book. Last year Little, Brown published a book, My Ideal Bookshelf, that asked more than 100 leading cultural figures, including Alice Waters, Malcolm Gladwell, James Franco, and Tony Hawk, to share a single bookshelf of books that changed their lives or made them who they are or made them laugh or cry. Each bookshelf was turned into a painting by Jane Mount and accompanied by a short, first-person essay describing the choices. It is a fascinating and fun read, and it also led to my ideal gift.

My kids learned that the artist Jane Mount ( offered a gift card for a custom bookshelf painting. I opened my gift envelope and found an assignment: Select a small shelf of eight books that represent me—the books that changed my life, that made me who I am, my favorite favorites.

Here are my eight books:

· Curious Goerge by H.A. Rey

That little monkey was important to me as a kid. I don’t know if it was the pleasure of seeing George get in and out of trouble, the spunky attitude, or just the fun that Curious George had, but I loved that book. After all these years, it still holds up as a classic.

· The Making of the President 1960 by Theodore H. White

I read this book about President Kennedy’s election when I was 15 years old. White is a great journalist and he created a wonderful story of American politics, beginning in the small villages of New Hampshire and ending at the White House, the center of global power. I was forever hooked on the adventure, the strategy, and the importance of politics. This book may have led me into politics and changed my life.

· The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Hands down, Huck Finn is my favorite novel. I’m sure I read this as a high school English assignment but I don’t remember the classroom discussion or my book report. What I do remember is laughing out load as I sprawled out on our living room couch reading this great and funny novel. Its story of an adolescent boy and a runaway slave escaping their lives as they float deeper and deeper into the darkness of the South defines the character and contradictions of our nation. But mostly the delight of Twain’s storytelling skills ensures that this novel will live forever. This book probably led me into becoming an English major at Cal and a bookseller thereafter.

·  Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen

This is the odd choice—a little-read and strange novel by the singer, songwriter, poet, and novelist Leonard Cohen. When I read novels I enjoy being surprised by the unexpected—and this story of an obscure Mohawk saint from Montreal, Catherine Tekakwitha, is full of the unexpected. It was a college read but it led me to meet my late wife, Candy. Our first conversation revealed that she was a distant cousin of Leonard Cohen. I mentioned how much I liked his writings and how I wrote a long paper on Beautiful Losers. She told me how much she did not like his novels and our conversation went on all night and our future was sealed.

· The Winding Stair by W.B. Yeats

It opens with “The light of evening, Lissadell,/ Great windows open to the south,/ Two girls in silk kimonos, both/ Beautiful, one a gazelle.” Candy and I met at the Yeats Summer School in Sligo, Ireland. We immediately skipped the classes and instead started hitchhiking to the scenes of many of Yeats’ poems, from the Lake Isle of Innisfree to the great Irish house of Lissadell. We fell in love immersed in these great poems of Yeats.

· Two Years Before the Mast by R.H. Dana

Several years before gold was discovered in California, a Harvard undergraduate, Richard H. Dana, shipped out on the brig Pilgrim on a journey around the Cape Horn and up along the empty California coast. I fell in love with his descriptions of life on a ship in 1835 and his stories of California’s empty coastal landscape. “Such are the people who inhabit a country embracing four or five hundred miles of sea-coast, with several good harbors; with fine forests in the north; waters filled with fish, and the plains covered with thousands of herds of cattle; blessed with a climate than which there can be no better in the world; free from all manner of diseases, whether epidemic or endemic; and with a soil in which corn yields from seventy to eighty fold.” I am always a sucker for a good history and this is a classic of California history.

· Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda

This is probably the best-selling book of poems of the 20th century—and they deserve their fame. These deeply romantic poems, based in Neruda’s own experience, are filled with stunningly beautiful images, lyrical metaphors, and wisdom beyond mere reality. I take this book down about once a year and fill a day with Neruda’s wonderful imagination. It was the first gift I gave to my wife, Lucie; we later traveled to Chile and visited all three of Neruda’s houses to find the world that produced such wonderful words.

· Refuge: An Unnatural History of family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams

This is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. Part nature writing, part family chronicle, part political polemic, all adding up to a very important book. I read this book soon after Candy died. As Louise Erdrich wrote: “Refuge is a record of loss, healing grace, and a search for a human place in nature’s large design.” This book is about finding refuge in an imperfect world. It is filled with wisdom and beauty. I love this book.

So my ideal bookshelf is filled with my favorite book, the book that changed my life, the book I read again and again, the book I love the most, the book that made me who I am, the best book I ever read, and the eight books I want on my ideal bookshelf.



Neal Coonerty is third district supervisor of Santa Cruz County and the former owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz.

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