My childhood home was a cramped testament to my parents’ curiosity. They traveled extensively for work and pleasure and often brought an empty suitcase with them so they could bring back antique kilims from Turkey, wooden statues from Zimbabwe, or sets of porcelain bowls from China. When they returned, they’d arrange these new jewels among the others they’d bought over the years, and I’d studiously examine them all.
I didn’t particularly like or understand my parents, but I appreciated that they were different from my friends’, and that our house was different as well. There was no television in our living room, but there was an African statue in every corner, masks perched above its windows, and Japanese Kimonos and Indonesian textiles hanging off every wall. I had little knowledge of the context or craftsmanship of what my parents collected, but each item gave me a jolt when I touched it. They were all from the same place: far away. I couldn’t wait to get there.
My parents didn’t take me with them when they traveled, but their wanderlust was contagious. When I wanted to explore, I had to venture inside one of the many books that lined our living room shelves or dotted the floor after the shelves could no longer contain their growing library. These books, with their vivid photographs of other cultures and peoples and traditional artifacts, mesmerized me as much as my parents’ treasures. They showed me the diversity of the world, and the beauty of its varied landscapes and cities and made me desperate to see them.
When I cleaned out their house after my mother’s death, I kept most of their books, battered and stained after years of abuse at my hands, and brought them with me to Brooklyn, despite knowing that I didn’t have room for them. I’d traveled extensively by that point, but when I looked at them, I still felt the wonder I’d experienced as a child. To this day, they make me want to jump on a plane more than any travel magazine or blog. They remind me that my place in the world is small, that there will always be more to see and experience, and that I should stay as committed to exploring the world beyond myself as I am to exploring—as I do with my writing—the world within.
The Family of Man by Edward Steichen and Carl Sandburg
If The Family of Man wasn’t on our coffee table, it was in my room, where I studied its pages until I knew all of its black-and-white-photographs by heart. First published in 1955 (for $1!), the book is a collection of over 500 photographs taken in 69 countries by hundreds of photographers, including Diane Arbus, Dorothea Lange, and Robert Frank. Edward Steichen, curator of the photography exhibition of the same name first displayed at the MoMA, called the collection “a mirror of the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world.” The book captures all aspects of life from birth until death, including work, education, love, and faith.
I was most fascinated by the pictures of children—children with their families, hunting game, indulging in ecstatic play, and in moments of solitude. I often hid in my room, hoping to escape, if only briefly, my father and his volcanic temper. I was by myself, but I wasn’t alone—I had my books, and often, this book. I looked at the page of people alone, who looked as sad and as alienated as I felt, and whispered the line of Lui Chi’s poetry that accompanied them, “I am alone with the beating of my heart.” I felt the weight of my seclusion as well as a sensation of being a part of the world, and felt comforted by knowing that it contained so much more than my family and our home. As an adult, I recognize that the book is limited by its predominantly western perspective, but still appreciate its ambition and lessons.
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West with the Night by Beryl Markham
West with the Night was my mother’s favorite book, and there were multiple copies in the house. In each, she underlined her favorite sentences and starred the passages that moved her most so she could read them again, or to me out loud, sometimes as we watched Out of Africa simultaneously, her favorite movie after Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia (she had a huge crush on Omar Sharif).
Markham’s 1942 memoir chronicles her childhood in Kenya and her career as a pilot and horse trainer. It was easy to understand why she was one of my mother’s heroes, and why my mother wanted her to be one of mine as well. She was the only professional pilot in Africa for a time, and was the first person to fly the Atlantic east to west in a solo, nonstop flight, a fete that ended with a crash landing in Canada. Her descriptions of her childhood, her life in the bush, and her perspective on life are gloriously lyrical and arresting. The following passage is one that my mother most adored, and one I often return to myself:
“We swung over the hills and over the town and back again, and I saw how a man can be master of a craft, and how a craft can be master of an element. I saw the alchemy of perspective reduce my world, and all my other life, to grains in a cup. I learned to watch, to put my trust in other hands than mine. And I learned to wander. I learned what every dreaming child needs to know—that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it.”
Nomads of the World by National Geographic Society
This book had the perfect blend of first-person anthropological scholarship and photography for my young mind; I relished learning about a way of life so thoroughly different than my own. Being a nomad didn’t seem easy—most chapters mentioned difficult relationships with a more dominant culture or local or national governments, as well as the many threats to traditional ways of life they faced from encroaching modernity or environmental issues—but I liked the tenacity and resourcefulness it required, and how highly freedom was valued.
I was as interested in the nomads as I was in the writers who studied them, a different one for each group in the book, and was wildly jealous of the time they spent with the Qashqai of Iran, the Guajiros of Colombia, and Niger’s Bororos—experiences they narrated with breezy humor. For a while, this book had me convinced I should become an anthropologist myself. As a bored little girl in Boston, living with the Bajau, a boat-dwelling people in the Philippines, watching a man spear a shark and frantically pound its head “in a bloody cloud of sea” (I saw Jaws way too young and was convinced I’d be eaten by a shark, even at the local pool), and spending almost my entire life on a boat of some sort was deeply seductive. While New York has very much become my home, I still fantasize about a life that isn’t tethered to one place and is free of the outrageous clutter of my existence. (Though I don’t know how I could live without all my books.)
Masks: Their Meaning and Function by Andreas Lommel
A Mexican Aztec mask made from a human skull and inlaid with turquoise graces the cover of this book. This image alone was enough to make me simultaneously terrified and intrigued by it. My parents collected masks, mostly from West and Southern Africa, and they were what my young friends gravitated toward most frequently while they took in my living room for the first, third, or 200th time. I was only allowed to touch them before or after they came off their perch, but one Halloween, my father greeted trick-or-treaters in a wood-and-straw mask that I believe was from Gabon, which caused them to forget about candy and take off hollowing down the block.
But I didn’t need to see someone wearing a mask to understand their power—it was obvious as I hurried past them at home, and while I stared at them in the pages of this comprehensive book. Before I could read, it mesmerized me with its photographs of masks from around the world, some presented on their own, others in pictures of ceremonies and processions, where they were just one part of a colorful costume. Some have simple designs, but the majority are elaborate and ornate.
Once I could read, I dipped into the text, which was scholarly without being too dry or academic, and learned about Shamanism as practiced by the peoples of Siberia and Alaska, and the Tibetan Tsam masks worn during fertility and exorcism rites. The book introduced me to cultures, belief systems, and rituals I wasn’t aware of, and demonstrated ways that identity can be claimed and subverted. Its pictures confirmed my belief that objects can be infused with powers so strong that they can be sensed in another place and time.
New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology edited by Felix Guirand
This extremely dense and thorough book entertained me for hours after I fell in love with mythology in fourth grade. It’s organized by culture, as opposed to being an alphabetized collection of gods and the places they inhabited, and offers an overview and interpretation of various belief systems as well as detailed explanations of the many beings that populated them—devious tricksters, vengeful goddesses, benevolent creators. I was as interested in the power of belief as I was in the different mythological worlds the book described. I understood wonder and the need to create stories that explained the unexplainable and gave logic to phenomena that seemed to defy it.
My young fantasies were powerful; I thought I might make them real if I could just concentrate hard enough. My religious education was casual at best, and I never believed in a Western God or found biblical stories—the few I heard—valuable. But I believed in Hera because the Greeks had, and in Osiris and Loki as well. I knew they’d disappeared along with their respective cultures long ago, but it was so much more interesting and exciting to put my faith in their myths than it was to believe that the world lacked the magic I craved, or that it was truly knowable.
Central Asia: Gems of 9th–19th-Century Architecture by Iraida Borodina
Focusing on the ancient cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva, and various deserted cities and monuments in the region, this book, along with a few others my parents collected, helped me fall in love with Islamic architecture. I still haven’t made it to Uzbekistan, but I’ve explored other Muslim countries and have been awed by the beauty of their mosques, mausoleums, and madrassas. The names of these cities alone had the power to transport me, and I delighted in exploring them from afar, knowing they’d been continuously inhabited for as long as they had.
History is everywhere, of course, but seeing people living among ancient relics made me understand how alive—and venerated—the past can be, and the importance of cities. In college, I majored in urban studies because I was so fascinated by the city’s many functions, the roles they play in our lives, and our slow evolution (I also thought that I should suppress my creative impulses and focus on “important” things—silly me).
East 100th Street by Bruce Davidson
Bruce Davidson spent two years photographing residents of East 100th Street during the late 1960s, and the black-and-white photographs, most of which are portraits, are intimate, raw, and very human. When I was young, I didn’t understand the problems and limitations bound up with his project—Davidson was a white photographer from outside the neighborhood taking pictures of marginalized people of color—but was heartened to recently learn that he gave copies of the book to his subjects and invited them to an exhibition of the work at the MoMA. I was already interested in and attracted to cities when I found this book on the shelf, and I studied each picture to see what it could tell me about the world and myself.
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