The Books I Can’t Live Without?


I move to Toronto tomorrow morning. So instead of doing something practical, like rushing around like the proverbial headless chicken wondering what I have forgotten to pack, I’m writing a blog post about books.

There are all sorts of things that I’m terribly excited for when I get to Toronto. The program, the classes I’m taking, the professors, the library resources, living next door to “Fort Book,” the theatre scene (and the three auditions I have lined up for my first week!), the discounted student tickets to the National Ballet, stage combat classes, the fact that the athletic centre is right across the street …

But when I accepted my offer of residence at Grad House, there was one thing I was definitely not looking forward to: sorting through my books. If you’ve ever been to my house, you know that the basement is home to a 4,000-tome family library, and that’s not including any of my father’s books (roughly another 4,000 volumes, split between his study at home and his study at work). Upstairs, I have six full bookcases of my own, including a large one that takes up most of the closest – when forced to choose between removing two-thirds of my clothes and letting the myriad unshelved books take over the floor in ungainly heaps, I opted for ditching the clothes.

And honestly, that is pretty standard for me. I am a fairly uncomplicated nerd in many ways. When I go on vacation, I always come back with a stack of new books, because I always run out of things to read – even if it’s only a three-day trip. I have never been known to splurge on handbags or heels, but when armed with a debit card, it is a dangerous thing to send me into a bookstore unaccompanied or without a budget – especially a really good used bookstore, like the one I discovered in Vancouver this summer. And when, a couple months ago, a friend asked me what I would do with a million dollars, my answer was straightforward: order a hard copy of the Oxford English Dictionary (20 volumes, $1,000), go to Oxford for my doctorate ($150,000), buy some more books, and put the rest of the money in the bank.


At Grad House there will be only one small bookcase in my room, and bringing additional furniture, aka more bookcases, is strictly forbidden.

Drastic measures have been required. Ruthless sessions of sorting have been followed by adding just one more back onto the pile … and one more … and one more … followed by more ruthless sessions of sorting.

But the six bookcases taking up all available wall space in my room have been whittled down to just over fifty volumes, which fit in two small crates, and generally fall into one or both of the following categories:

– The first, and largest, category is for books that are directly related to my studies (Old English textbooks, E.V. Gordon’s Introduction to Old Norse, various editions of Beowulf, the complete Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda, and quite a few others).

– The second category is for books I have decided I do not wish to live without. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records fit into this category quite nicely as well – there are really quite a few books from category one that also belong in category two – but this is really the category for stuff like the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, the Complete Sherlock Holmes, Watership Down, and The Silmarillion. 

What’s most interesting about the second category is not only what I’ve included – which might be a totally different set of books if I was posed the same question ten years from now – but what has been left on the shelves. There are, for instance, virtually no fantasy books other than Tolkien’s in the pile for Toronto. When push came to shove, only Tolkien and Eddings made the cut. And three-quarters of my (many) Tolkien-related books are still on the shelves, including most volumes of the History of Middle-Earth – except The Book of Lost Tales, Part 2, and Lays of Beleriand, which did make it into the crates for Toronto.

Most of the Great Books of the Western World series will be left behind – as much as I’d like to have Newton’s Principia Mathematica handy, I won’t use it regularly, and somehow I’m pretty sure Robarts Library has a copy if I really want one. (Actually, I know they do, because I just looked it up … not only do they have translations in abundance, they have original copies in the Rare Book library. I may be geeking out about that one.)

Most of my dictionaries have been left behind. Only Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged is coming; all the books on Latin and Greek word roots are not. Neither is the Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, nor Bioscientific Terminology, nor the Rhyming Dictionary, nor the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, nor the Finnish, Spanish, French, or Latin dictionaries that usually sit right beside my bed – again, either I can access an equivalent online, or I’ll just have to walk the two hundred metres from residence to the library.

Which is the most amusing part of the whole problem, for me. Not only am I going to be living right beside the main library of the University of Toronto, which has one of the largest library systems in North America, two of the largest branches of the Toronto Public Library are within walking distance.

Whatever books I am taking, therefore, are the books that I want to have within arm’s reach.


Quite probably, but still – here’s the list:

Category 1:

1. Beowulf (bilingual edition, trans. Seamus Heaney)

2. Beowulf (bilingual edition, trans. Howell D. Chickering)

3. A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse

4. Old English Shorter Poems

5. The History of the Kings of Britain (Geoffrey Monmouth)

6. Morte Darthur (Thomas Malory)

7. Arthurian Romances (Chretien de Troyes)

8. The Sagas of Icelanders

9. The Saga of the Volsungs

10. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

11. The Monsters and the Critics and other essays (J.R.R. Tolkien and in category two, but it definitely belongs here as well)

12. The Prose Edda

13. The Poetic Edda

14. An Introduction to Old Norse (E.V. Gordon)

15. An Old High German Primer (Joseph Wright)

16. A Primer of the Gothic Language (Joseph Wright)

17. The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer)

18. Word-hoard: an Introduction to Old English Vocabulary (Stephen A. Barney)

19. A Guide to Old English (Mitchell and Robinson)

20. Medieval Latin (ed. K.P. Harrington)

21. Wheelock’s Latin

22. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (6 volumes)

23. The Norton Anthology of English Literature (6 volumes)

24. Paradise Lost (John Milton)

Category 2:

25. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Arden edition)

26. The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

27. The Silmarillion (J.R.R. Tolkien)

28. The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien)

29. The Lord of the Rings (3 volumes) (J.R.R. Tolkien)

30. The Book of Lost Tales, Part 2 (J.R.R. Tolkien)

31. Lays of Beleriand (J.R.R. Tolkien)

32. Polgara the Sorceress (David Eddings)

33. Watership Down (Richard Adams)

34. The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas)

35. Mara, Daughter of the Nile (Eloise Jarvis McGraw)

36. A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Mark Twain)

37. Linear Algebra (Nicholson)

38. Quantum Mechanics (Scherrer)

39. Modern Physics (Serway, Moses, and Moyer)

40. The Singer’s Musical Theatre Anthology (soprano, 3 volumes)

41. The Bibliophile’s Dictionary (Miles Westley)