Unfortunately, I like to have all the books I consider “in play” at any moment right at hand. This means that huge stacks of things I’ve just read or am reading for my work tend to grow around my desk. Milk crates are deployed imperfectly. Shelving would help if there were room. Currently, the outgoing stack is a pile of books about hydroelectric dams, the aluminum industry and the culture of waste; my favorites are Richard White’s succinct yet mindblowing account of the Columbia River, The Organic Machine, and Lizbeth Cohen’s magisterial study of how the notion of “consumer buying power” transformed American culture, A Consumer’s Republic. Both of these were kept ready at hand while working on my new piece for Orion, and like friends who’ve moved to the suburbs, I’ll miss them when they return to the shelves, only to be taken out on special occasions.
Taking their place are my new friends, a growing stack pertaining to my next nonfiction project. They include Lewis Mumford, The Highway and the City; Andro Linklater, The Fabric of America, James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere, Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, John Brinckerhoff Jackson, Landscape in Sight; Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, David Halberstam, The Fifties; Joel Garreau: Edge City: Life on the New Frontier; John Stilgoe: Train Time: Railroads and the Imminent Reshaping of the American Landscape; Jane Holtz Kay, Asphalt Nation and Tom Lewis: Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life. As I read these I will make notes about other books I need to acquire, and the tower will grow.
I am addicted to reference books. In addition to the usual collection of dictionaries, foreign language dictionaries, thesauri, and style manuals, I have a stack of field guides I consider so indispensable, they live on my desk. They are: Brian Hayes, Infrastructure: The Book of Everything for the Industrial Landscape (a fantastic resource!); Leslie Day: Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City (with beautiful drawings by Mark Klingler); Dolores Hayden: A Field Guide to Sprawl; Roger M. Knutson: Flattened Fauna: A Field Guide to Common Animals of Roads, Streets and Highways; Kate Ascher: The Works: Anatomy of a City; Virginia Mcalester and Lee Mcalester: A Field Guide to North American Houses; Marcia Reiss: Architectural Details (I love architectural terms like “inglenook” or “jerkin-head”); and Gerald Foster, A Field Guide to Trains of North America (which was a gift and was eventually banned from weekend holidays by Bob, who declared it “just too geeky.”)
In my free time, I recently finished a few really stellar books. Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy made me rethink a lot of assumptions about how the world should work. Lee Siegel’s Against the Machine was a brilliant screed against the fraudulent notion that the internet equals democracy. Terese Svoboda’s memoir Black Glasses Like Clark Kent had me totally gripped by her journey into her uncle’s traumatic WW II memories. And I was completely surprised by the totally fun and smart window onto the world of “urbex,” or urban exploration in L.B. Deyo and David “Lefty” Liebowitz, Invisible Frontier: Exploring the Tunnels, Ruins, and Rooftops of Hidden New York.