The 111 Books I read in Peace Corps

The 111 Books I Read in Peace Corps

My worn table on a typical village morning. E-book, coffee, field journal, pen, and external hard drive.

In the last 746 days, just over two years, I’ve read 111 books. This averages to one book every 6.72 days, so just about one a week.

Living in the village lends itself to quiet and introspective habits. I read when I drink coffee, I read before going to sleep, I read in my hammock when the afternoon heat forces me outside, I read on minibuses, I read when I’m waiting for a meeting to start, I read in the backs of meetings held in languages I don’t understand, I read while waiting for minibuses to arrive, I read when BBC Radio isn’t working, I read when I need to be away from people, and I read to my little friends in English translate to Tonga together.

I underline passages that speak to me. Afterwards I copy down these quotations into my field journal. What began without conscious effort, this journal has become my most valuable possession. It has over 200 pages of handwritten quotations.

On its very back pages is a running list of the books I’ve read. Which I’m going to copy here for you, imposed with selected quotes from the main section of my journal.

  • 1. Summer in the Sierra, John Muir

“We are in the mountains and the mountains are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver. Filling every pore and cell of us. Our flesh and bone tabernacle seems as transparent as glass to the beauty around us as if truly an indispensable part of it, thrilling us in air and trees, streams and rocks, in waves of the sun- a part of all nature, neither old nor young, sick nor well, but immortal”

“Wrote my mother and friends, mountain hints to each. They seem as near to me as within voice, reach, or touch. The deeper the solitude the less the sense of loneliness, and the nearer our friends.”

“I’ll surely be back, however surely I’ll be back. No other place has so overwhelmingly held me as this hospitable, godful wilderness.”

  • 2. Walk to the Gulf, John Muir

“From form to form, beauty to beauty, ever changing, never resting, all are speeding with lovers enthusiasm singling with the starts the eternal song of creation.”

  • 3. Naked, David Sedaris

  • 4. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson

“Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the world are never alone or weary of life.”

“We know little of the threads that bind soil organisms to each other, and their world, and the world above.”

“But there is also an ecology of life at work within our bodies.”

  • 5. The Living Lakes, Jerry Dennis

“We lay in the twilight and listened to the wind roaring overhead and the rain splattering in gusts and the earth trembling boom of the waves hitting the oldest rocks on the planet. You could hear the crawl of centuries out there.”

  • 6. The Bedwetter, Sarah Silverman

  • 7. Wild, Sherrel Strayed

  • 8. Bossypants, Tina Fey

  • 9. Yes Please, Amy Pohler

  • 10. A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

  • 11. All the Light we Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

  • 12. The Goldfinch, Donna Tarrt

“A great sorrow, and one I’m only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves love what’s good for us, or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose who we are”

“stay away from the ones you love too much. Those are the ones that’ll kill you. What you want to live and be happy is a woman who has her own life and lets you have yours.”

“And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic, it is a glory and privilege to love what death doesn’t touch. For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting through time-so too has love. Safer as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part of its immortality. It exists-and keeps on existing. And I’ll add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things and looked out for them and pulled them from fires and sought them when they were lost and tried to preserve and save them when literally passing them along, hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time, to the next generations of lovers, and the next.”

  • 13. Me Before You, JoJo Moyes

  • 14. Jaws, Peter Benchly

  • 15. Lost and Found, Jaqualine Sheenhan

  • 16. The Horse Whisperer, Nicholas Evans

  • 17. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

“I can never read all the books I want. I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. I want to live and feel all the shades, tones, and varieties of mental and physical experiences in my life. I am horribly limited. “

“If neurotic is wanting to be two mutually exclusive things at once then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days”

“I write only because there is a voice within me that would not be still.”

  • 18. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexi

  • 19. Totally True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexi

  • 20. The Wild Muir, collection of Muir’s short stories

  • 21. Handmaids Tale, Margaret Attwood

  • 22. Edible Woman, Margaret Attwood

  • 23. Cat’s Eye, Margeret Attwood

  • 24. Robber Bride, Margaret Attwood

  • 25. Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone, JK Rowling

  • 26. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, JK Rowling

  • 27. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, JK Rowling

  • 28. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling

  • 29. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, JK Rowling

  • 30. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, JK Rowling

  • 31. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling

  • 32. Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

  • 33. Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver

“Her body moved with a frankness that comes with solitary habits. But solitude is only a human perception. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot. Every choice is a world made new for the chosen. All secrets are witnessed.”

“she learned to tell time with her skin, as a morning turned to afternoon the mountain’s breath began to bear gently on the back of her neck. By early evening it was insistent as a lover’s sigh. She had come to think of Zebulun as another man in her life, larger and steadier than any other companion she had known.”

“Bachman’s wonder, passenger Pidgeon, Carolina parakeet, Flint’s stonefly, apamea moth. So many extinct creatures moved through leaves just outside her peripheral vision, for Dianna realized she lived among ghosts.”

  • 34. Above the Waterfall, Ron Rash

“Though sunlight tinges the mountains, black leather-winged bodies swing low. First fireflies blink languidly. Beyond the meadow, cicadas rev and slow like sewing machines. All else ready for night but night itself.”

  • 35. The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver

“I don’t know anymore which home I miss.”

“Whatever you want the most, it’ll be the worst thing for you.”

“I had realized Lou Ann measured many things in her life, besides her figure, in terms of before and after Dwayne ray…the reason most people have kids is because they’re pregnant.”

  • 36. La Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver,

“Here is end of Mexico, and chapter one. The train ride is like a long, narrow cave in the sea. With luck it may open on the other side in someplace new. But not here.”

“Grandmothers sit on blankets weaving more blankets for other grandmothers to sit on.”

  • 37. Bradt Guide to Malawi

  • 38. Lake of Slaves, Brian Duncann

  • 39. Fifty Shades of Gray, EL James

  • 40. The Big Burn, Timothy Eagan

“the fledgling forest service knew the region, its trains, creekbeds, and ridgelines. He knew the winds, the mining holes, the path of afternoon thunderstorms. He knew how to calm a horse when lightning struck, how to craft a tool out of a plank of rough cedar and could pitch a lean-to in less time it took other rangers to finish a sentence.”

“Like a lot of people who grew up close to nature she knew horses knew something she didn’t, they could sense a disaster before she did.”

“Every American had this birthright: holding a citizen’s share in an area the size of France. Even if they never set foot in it, never saw it, never knew where it was, it was there, it was theirs.”

“Could generations of college-trained foresters really hope to control something as elemental as wildfire? Could man shape nature to his design?”

  • 41. On the Road, Jack Kerouc

  • 42. The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouc

  • 43. Women who Run With Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés

  • 44. Desert Solitataire, Edward Abbey

“There is nothing here at the moment but me and the desert. And that’s the truth. Why confuse the issue by bringing in a superfluous entitiy? Occam’s razor. Beyond atheism, earthism. Be true to the earth”

“Light, space. Light and space without time. I think this is a country with only the slightest traces of human history. In this doctrine of geologists with all their scheme of ages, eons, and epochs in flux, sterilities taught, but from the morally human point of view Colorado is a cross-section of eternity. Timeless.”

  • 45. Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey

  • 46. Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Kimmerer

  • 47. The Golden Spruce, John Vallient

  • 48. On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exulted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of higher animals directly follows.”

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having originally breathed into a few forms, or into one, and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity. From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

  • 49. Gumption, Nick Offerman

“It would seem we are still looking down the barrel of destruction. Water shortages, exhaustion of fossil fuels, not to mention the subsequent pollution and global warming, the neglect of our agricultural communities, all seem fully lethal as well. Maybe they won’t kill us as succinctly as the Blitz, but we have come to know that it will kill us. And I’m afraid it will in a much more permanent way than a gun battle. Cities can be rebuilt with much greater ease than ecosystems.”

  • 50. Two for the Dough, Janet Evonovich

  • 51. Four to Score, Janet Evonovich

  • 52. Visions of Sugar Plums, Janet Evonovich

  • 53. Spaien, Yuval Noah Harari

  • 54. King Leopolds Ghost, Adam Hochschild

  • 55. Running in Flip Flops, Abigail Fey

  • 56. Sizzling Sixteen, Janet Evonovich

  • 57. Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz

  • 58. The Revenant, Michael Punke

“With his eyes he traced again a deep canyon that had seemed to penetrate the mountain’s very core? Did it? He smiled at the infinite prospect of what may lay up in the canyon, of what may lay on the mountaintops, of what may lay beyond. He raised his eyes to a horizon carved form snowy mountain peaks, virgin white against a frigid blue sky. He could climb up there if he wanted. Climb up there and touch the horizon, jump across and find the next.”

  • 59. Love is Strange, collection of short stories

  • 60. The Pearl Diver, Jeff Talarigo

  • 61. Profiles in Courage, John F Kennedy

    *I used the prologue as emergency toilet paper

  • 62. 2005 Beset in American Science Writing

  • 63. Chocolate, Joann Harris

  • 64. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig

  • 65. Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

“recorded history’s version does not coincide with the truth, but these are the facts because they were passed down by word of mouth through the years.”

“The one thing she liked most about Henry Clinton was that he let her be silent when she wanted to be. She did not have to entertain him.”

  • 66. 77 American Gods, Neil Gayman

  • 67. Handmaids Tale, Margaret Attwood *re-read

  • 68. Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux *excerpts from Malawi chapters

  • 69. What Happened, Hillary Rodham Clinton

“Trump loves to humiliate women, loves to talk about how disgusting we are. He was determined to rattle me. I was determined not to give him the satisfaction.”

“Listening to Trump it feels like there is no such thing as the truth anymore.”

“I knew I could do a world of good and help a lot of people. Does that make me ambitious? I guess that does. But not in the sinister way people mean it. I did not want to be president because I wanted power for powers sake. I wanted power to do what I could do to help solve problems and prepare the country for the future. It’s audacious for anyone to believe he or she should be president, but I did.”

“Sometimes I wish every man in America understood how much fear accompanies women throughout our lives. So many of us have been threatened or harmed. So many of us have helped friends recover from a traumatic incident. It’s difficult to convey what all this violence does to us. It adds up in our hearts and our nervous systems.”

“men aren’t naturally more confident than women. WE tell them to believe in themselves, and we tell women to doubt themselves.”

“And did I mention that we went on to win the National popular vote by more than 3 million votes?”

“We Americans we may differ, bicker, stumble and fall: but we are at our best when we pick each other up, when we have each other’s backs. Like any family, our American family is strongest when we cherish what we have in common and fight back against those that would drive us apart.”

“To all those girls that are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your dreams.”

  • 70. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling *re-read

  • 71. Spine of the Continent, Mary Ellen Hannibal

“Tracks are like lingering shadows. Who was here? When? Populating the paw prints with visuals of their full-bodied makers.”

“To do science is to search for repeated patterns, not just simply to accumulate facts.”

“It is this kind of tension, of course, that heightens the spirit of scientific inquiry.”

“The real work is becoming native in your heart. Coming to understand that we really live here, that our loyalties are here, to these mountains and these rivers, to these plant zones, to these creatures. The real work is developing a loyalty that goes back before the formation of any nation state, back billions of years and thousands of years into the future. The real work is accepting citizenship of the continent itself.”

  • 72.  The Bone People, Keri Hulme

  • 73. The Whale Rider, Witi Ihimaer

  • 74. Giving, Bill Clinton

  • 75. Plum Lucky, Janet Evonovich

  • 76. Plum Spooky, Janet Evonovich

  • 77. Finger Lickin Fifteen, Janet Evonovich

  • 78. Fearless Fourteen, Janet Evonovich

  • 79. Plum Lovin, Janet Evonovich

  • 80. Ten Big Ones, Janet Evonovich

  • 81. Twelve Sharp, Janet Evonovich

  • 82. To the Nines, Janet Evonovich

  • 83. Three to get Deadly, Janet Evonovich

  • 84. Lean Mean Thirteen, Janet Evonovich

  • 85. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkein

  • 86. Lord of the Rings the Two Towers, JRR Tolkein

  • 87. Lord of the Rings Return of the King, JRR Tolkein

  • 88. Fire and Fury, Michael Wolf

  • 89. Life and Death of the Great Lakes, Dan Eagan

“A Great Lake can swallow a freighter almost three times the length of a football field; the lake’s bottoms are littered with an estimated 6,000 ships, many of which have never been found. This never would have happened on a normal lake, because a normal lake is knowable. A Great Lake can hold all the mysteries of the ocean and then some.”

“The recorded history of all these lake trout stocks is sketchy.”

“I’ve heard him described as living on cigarettes and aspirin. He was very intense. A small man. Red-haired.”

“People look at the lake and don’t think of it as having a geography. It’s just a flat surface from above-and from there it looks pretty much as it did 30 years ago, but under the water everything has changed.”

“people who have never seen a Great Lake cannot comprehend the immenseness of the blue expanse. About the best you can say is ‘it looks like the ocean’ but that doesn’t capture the essential fact that the Great Lakes are not saltwater. That’s a bit like describing the Great Plains saying waves of grain as looking like a desert.”

  • 90. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

“It is an important and popular fact that things are not always as they seem. For instance, on Planet Earth man had always assumed he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much-the wheel, New York, wars, and so on-while all the dolphins had ever done is muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed they were far more intelligent than man for precisely the same reasons.”

“The history of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe is one of idealism, struggle, despair, passion, failure, and enormously long lunch breaks.”

  • 91. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams

  • 92. Life, The Universe, and Everything, Douglas Adams

“It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problem with just potatoes.”

  • 93. So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, Douglas Adams

  • 94. The Thief Lord, Cornelia Funnke

“He felt a sudden wave of sickness in his stomach. He closed his eyes, as if he could keep the fears out of his head that way, but of course it didn’t work.”

  • 95. The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti

“A women’s worth lies in her ability-or her refusal-to be sexual. And we’re teaching girls that, one way or another, their bodies and their sexuality are what make them valuable. The sexual double standard is alive and well, and it’s irrevocably damaging young women.”
“Virginity is insulting because it suggests women can’t be moral actors. Instead we’re defined by what we don’t do-our ethics are the ethics of passivity.”

“1/3 of American women get pregnant before 20, of those who carry to term 80% of those pregnancies are unintended. -CDC Report in 2008”

  • 96. The Sun Also Rises, Earnest Hemmingway

  • 97. Dead Aid, Moyo

  • 98. On Beauty, Zadie Smith

  • 99. Milk and Honey, Rupi Kaur

“It was when I stopped searching for a home

Within others

And lifted the foundations of a home

Within myself

I found there were no roots more intimate

Than between a body and mind

That have decided to be whole”

“I do not want to have you

To fill the empty parts of me

I want to be full on my own

I want to be so complete

That I could light a whole city

And then

I want to have you

Cause the two of us combined

Could set it

On fire.”

  • 100. Fireflies, Rabinganath Tangore *re-read many, many, times.

“I know him and therefore I know myself

My last salutations are to them

Who knew me imperfect and loved me

Loves gift cannot be given, it waits to be accepted

The moth counts not months but moments

And has time enough

Let my love, like sunlight surround you

And give you illuminated freedom

My fancies are fireflires

Specs of living light

Twinkling in the dark

The voice of wayside pansies

We gain freedom when we have paid the full price for our right to live.

The glowworm, while exploring the dust

Never knows the stars are in the sky

Let your love see me

Even through the barrier of nearness

The tree is a winged spirit

Released from the bondage of seed

Pursuing its adventure of life across the unknown

In love, I pay my endless debt to thee”

  • 101. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

  • 102. Everyday, David Leviathan

“I am a drifter, and as lonely as that can be it can also be remarkably freeing. I will never define myself in terms of somebody else.”

  • 103. The Demon Haunted World, Caral Sagan

  • 104. The Audacity of Hope, Barrack Obama

  • 105. Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O’Dell

  • 106. The Art of Racing in the Rain, Gareth Stein

  • 107. Dreams from my Father, Barrack Obama

  • 108. Wildlife and Landscapes of Malawi, Brian Morris

  • 109. The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

  • 110. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver *re-read

“Once every few years now I catch the scent of Africa. Ripe fruits, acrid sweat, urine, flowers, dark spices, and other things I’ve never seen-I can’t say what goes into the composition, or why it rises up to confront me as I roll around some corner, hastily, unsuspecting. It has fund me here on this island, in this little town, in a back alley where sleek boys smoke in a stairwell admit the days uncollected refuse, a few years back it found me on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. … I merely walked out of a library and there it was, the scent knocking me down for no reason I can understand. The sensation rises up inside me and I know you’re still here, holding sway. You’ve played some trick on the dividing of my cells so my body can never be free of the small parts of Africa it consumed. It’s the scent of accusation. It seems I only know myself, anymore, by your attendance in my soul.”

“Guilty or innocent, they have everything to lose. They are what there is to lose. A wife is the earth itself, changing hands, bearing scars.”

“How the women in the field will stand up one after the other, unwrap the chitenje of bright cloth tied under their breasts, stretch it out wide before them, re-tying it. They resemble flocks of butterflies opening and closing their wings.”

“Listen. Slide the weight from your shoulders and move forward. You are afraid you might forget it, but you will never will. You will forgive and remember. Think of the vine that curls from the small square plot that was once my heart. That is only marker you need. Move on. Walk forward into the light.”

  • 111. Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey

“When I return will it be the same? Will I be the same? Will anything every be the same again? If I return.”


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