If you could own a physical copy of just one book, what would it be and why? I asked this question last month and got a wide-variety of answers. Not surprisingly, several people chose the Bible, a single book that served the vast majority of people since the dawn of book publishing and ownership just fine. Other top must-haves for the digital age included cookbooks and other guides, marked-up editions, collections, and a random assortment of personal favorites, including memoirs, social analyses, and fiction.
While no one book stood out as a top choice, it was clear that people love their books, and want at least some of them at their side and in their homes. Equally clear was that choosing just one book to have and to hold was a tough task for many people.
Margo Keyser was typical when she replied she simply couldn’t answer—too many books to choose from! If she really had to winnow her collection down to a single book she said she’d have to imagine there was an emergency evacuation and “grab whatever was at hand,” just to have something to read.
Many people chose a favorite book, or a favorite book of the moment. Among the choices were John Updike’s memoir Self-Consciousness, Camron Wright’s The Rent Collector, James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and The Hobbit also made the list (although Mary Johnson was torn between The Hobbit and The Bible).
Several people said they’d want to own the books that they kept going back to, particularly those they had annotated or because going back to these books brought back memories of the book’s impact earlier in their lives. Others say they cherish a book that impacts them differently every time they open it.
“If I could borrow and read other books, but only own one, I would choose The Art of War because it is the most marked-up and flagged book I own,” said Stacy Simera. “The first time I read it only a few passages resonated with me, but with each reaching and each phase of life I enter, I glean even more wisdom from Sun Tzu.”
Bang for the Buck
Then there were those who cleverly chose collections such as Jorge Luis Borges’ Collected Fictions and The Complete Works of Shakespeare.
“Is that cheating?” asked Judith Bosselman Richardson. I don’t think so. If you could only have one book on hand, it seems reasonable enough to get choose one with some heft and variety, particularly one that can be read again and again and always have something new to say.
Still, Kim Sklar Reichelt’s wry response that her one book would be her Kindle may have crossed the line. At the very least it brought me back to my original question: do we really need physical books in this digital age? If you’re now doing most of your reading on a Kindle or its equivalent, a good case can be made for clearing out your bookshelves and using them instead for extra plugs, batteries, and whatnot.
Bibles, Cookbooks, and Other Sources of Support
That the Holy Bible was a popular choice was no surprise, of course. Maribel Cabrera Ibrahim explained it well: “If I’m going to own just one book, this would be it,” she said. “It is a living book, has a variety of literary forms, [and] is compelling, exciting, and informative. And, hey, it’s 66 collected works!” [See “More Bang for the Buck,” above]
You’d think dictionaries and thesauruses would have make the list, but as Vicky Lines observed, these are all easily accessible on line these days. A more popular choice was cookbooks, particularly those personalized with annotations. Sure, many people get their recipes off the Internet today, or have their Echo recite them while they mix and measure, but sometimes there’s no substitute for returning to that bookmarked (and, in my case, grease-marked) page of The Joy of Cooking to recall your hand-written suggestion about adding nutmeg to peach pie or your observation that a little less sugar tastes just fine.
Terry Farnan Bosworth said she might choose The Joy of Cooking, if only to keep alive her hope of learning to cook one day, or—dare she dream?—to like it. Ellen Bruce Keable chose The New Basics Cookbook by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso, who also authored the Silver Palate cookbooks.
For Vicki Lines, the cookbook of choice would be her Southern Living Cookbook. “I have so many notes and recipes hand written in that book,” she said, “I would be devastated to lose it!”
Health and medical guides came up as well for a few respondents. My favorite, of course, was Deb Coleman’s choice, The New Harvard Guide to Women’s Health by Karen J. Carlson, Stephanie Eisenstat, and Terra Ziporyn. (Thanks, Deb!)
Personal or Irreplaceable Books
As I pondered my own question—and I thought it only fair to do so—I decided that the only books I needed to own were irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind books. I suspect Beth Dietrick was thinking along the same lines when she said her husband had diplomatically suggested that their wedding album was the only essential book in the house.
Beth herself said that if she had to choose just one book, she’d probably choose one of their family bibles, or something else passed down from one generation to the next like Marguerite Henry’s Five O’Clock Charlie, one of her husband’s favorite childhood books and something they hope to pass on to future generations.
I think I’d similarly pick something I can’t get at the local library and that feels like part of my personal history, like a book by a family member. The problem is that I have so many family members who have written books that it would be wrenching to pick just one. I can’t even pick an unpublished book hand-drawn by a child because I have three children, and they’ve all left with such books or their equivalents.
The obvious solution, of course, would be to pick one of my own books, and then I suppose it would be one of my novels. Any of them would do because I wouldn’t read it. I would just look at it now and then to remind myself that I had done something with my life.