Books that changed me in 2013


I began the year with two books which helped me slow down and breathe: Christian McEwen’s World Enough and Time and Fiona Robyn’s A Year of Questions. In each you find a good deal of hard-won wisdom from writers, artists, thinkers and philosophers, but arranged in such a way as to aid, not hurry absorption. Both books are structured around the conceit of the year as a journey into new habits and patterns of thinking, the latter more explicitly than the former. They have chapter titles like ‘Hurry Sickness’ and ‘In Praise of Walking’ (World Enough and Time); and ‘What’s going on behind the cup of tea?’ and ‘Giving the sergeant major a week off’ (A Year of Questions)Not least among the pleasures of each book is the comprehensive reading lists contained in each, truly a gift that will continue to keep giving.


I have been enjoying Stephen Pressfield’s blog for a while. This was the year I finally followed through and read his books on persevering with the work we have been given to do: The War of Art and Do the Work. The premise of both books is the same: the more we are passionate about a calling or a project, the more we are going to feel resistance towards it. Packed with no-nonsense, plain-speaking advice from one who ‘has been there’, both books are both-barrels, permission-giving pick-me-ups designed to help you re-vision what you want to achieve.


The same can also be said for Seth Godin’s The Icarus DeceptionBased on a similar premise, that resistance is there in all our lives, Godin urges us to create and deliver the thing we are passionate about. For want of a better word he calls this ‘art’. Too many of us heed the well-known warning of the Icarus myth, he says, and respectfully fly well out of the reach of the sun. Godin argues that the concomitant danger of this is that we ignore the myth’s other central lesson: that to aim too low is equally to risk death. Too many of us settle for this according to Godin, and ‘wait to be picked’ by a world that is still coming to terms with the end of industrial means of production. This makes so little sense as to be comical. For a flavour of the book’s themes you can watch him being interviewed here.


As the holidays approached I read Jean Sprackland’s Strands and Robert Hass’s The Apple Trees at OlemaDivided into four sections, one for each of the seasons, Strands details ‘a year of discoveries on the beach’ at Southport, Sprackland’s former home. Part extended prose poem, part diary, part ecological treatise, it is a book of marvels, showing how history, landscape and industry interconnect, even when the results are not pretty or romantic.

I had bought The Apple Trees at Olema some time previously, but 2013 was when I really sat down to read it. Reading it I learned again the importance of handling tone. Frequently in a Hass poem, not a great deal appears to be going on (or maybe everything). No matter. The delicious pleasure of reading him is one of trust in the expectation of delight, rather like the patience required in not eating a bag of overripe peaches on a hot summer’s day until one has got home.

All of us have a handful of poets whose new book we buy on spec, without reading the reviews, just because it is by them. Jean Sprackland is one of these. Cliff Yates is another. His marvellous pamphlet Bike, Rain is the essence of Cliff: wry, tender and very, very funny.


The book which surprised me the most this year was Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems (edited by Joy Katz and Kevin Prufer; University of Illinois Press, 2007). The premise behind the anthology is simple. It comprises sixty-seven short essays by poets introducing a poem they feel has been overlooked or fallen into obscurity. It is a marvel of a book, and one I intend to review in full in a later blog post. Arranged alphabetically (no classification by period or literary tradition would do it justice), the book introduces names you have heard of (Sylvia Plath, R.S. Thomas, Wislawa Szymborska) and five times as many that you haven’t: Bert Meyers, Joyce Peseroff, Pierre Martory. The book is a continual delight: for its pairings, which reveal as much about the essayist-poets as they do the poets they have chosen; for its insights into the establishing, building, and in some cases destroying of careers in poetry; and for the sheer range of poetic styles, idioms, and traditions represented. I cannot recommend it highly enough.



  1. Thank you for this list. I do feel overwhelmed however! There are so many poets and so very many poems that are lifesaving or life-enhancing: how can I actually find the time to live my life? I am sure you have often been asked this! Then there is the question of the poems that I write! No prizes won (yet) and not yet accepted for publication. How much hubris do I need to keep trying? (I do feel better getting the questions off my chest!)


    1. Thanks so much for commenting, I really appreciate it. I’m not sure how one fits in ‘life’.
      All of the poems you read about here feel essential to me in some way, so all I am trying to do is record my love for them before I forget why I loved them in the first place, even though I am a different person from the the person who read them for the first time.
      Most of them have been read while studying, bringing up children, recovering from being seriously ill, or doing something else more economically more viable. There are days, weeks, even, when poetry bounces off me or when I cannot or do not go near it.
      All I do is follow my nose, one poem at a time. Or as the great Anne Lamott says, I take it bird by bird.
      That is all any of us can do. Everything else (reviews, who is in or out, or losing or winning) I ignore. Or do my damndest to.
      As ever with best wishes, especially for 2014


  2. Anthony, I read A Year of Questions on your recommendation. Mindfulness in its broadest sense. Very thoughtful and thought-provoking for all, whether creative writers or not. Look forward to World Enough and Time next. We’ve exchanged emails before: I was successfully treated for NHL last year. Keep up the good work!


    1. Hi Simon. So pleased the Year of Questions spoke to you. World Enough is much chunkier and can be read through slowly or dipped into . Both work. I’m so pleased you’re still ok. Go well and thank you again, Anthony


      1. Anthony, I just finished World Enough, another good recommendation, so thank you! In the last chapter, on happiness, Christian refers to positive psychology and flourishing. I’ve read around this topic before and believe it has a lot of value. Tal Ben-Shahar has written a number of books, summarised in Choose the Life You Want. The title is off-putting but the content is very wholesome positive psychology. PS Your site seems to have got great traction judging by the number of email subscribers. Well done! Simon


      2. Dear Simon, thank you for letting me know you enjoyed Christian’s book. I will look up Tal Ben-Shahar’s.
        When I thought of the title ‘Lifesaving Poems’ I did it to entertain myself. That seemed to be the main thing to me. I had no idea others would follow it or want to join in (but am deeply grateful that they do, like you).
        As ever with gratitude for your thoughts and engagement


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