Back in 2008, when Amazon released its then-revolutionary Kindle e-reader, Apple’s Steve Jobs predicted that it would fail because “the fact is that people don’t read anymore.” Though Jobs was soon proved wrong–indeed, Apple today sells tablets, which also function as e-readers–the numbers of Americans who don’t read books are scarcely better than they were in 2008. Back then, Jobs said “40 percent” of Americans read one book or less. A 2013 HuffPost/YouGov poll showed that number had dropped to 32 percent, but still.
For someone like me, someone who writes for a living (and has had three books published so far), these are scary numbers. When I look at Facebook and see the vast majority of my “news feed” is consumed by the sharing of memes, lists and endless Buzzfeed pop culture quizzes, it just gets worse.
Books, whether they exist in paper or digital format, make up the foundation of our civilization. Reading them requires our brains to think, and in return we get knowledge that simply doesn’t exist elsewhere. Read enough Tweets and Facebook posts and it’s easy to see that much of what we share through social media was written without the aid of books. Because, after all, if you can’t link to it or condense it to 140 characters, it might as well not exist.
So I decided to combine something I love–books–with something America loves–lists–and came up with the following. Here are (in my humble opinion) the 10 most essential books to understanding Maui. These aren’t guide books or big coffee table collections of photographs–they’re a mix of fiction and nonfiction, chosen because they’ve given me unique and valuable insight into the island that simply isn’t found anywhere else. They’re in no particular order, and were published between the late 1970s and just a few months ago.
A word of warning, though: some of these books are out of print. That means you may have to do a bit of digging to find them–perhaps even search the stacks at used book stores or, even better, your local public library. Of course, that might expose you to even more (and possibly better) books about our island home.
So get cracking. While Maui isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, many of these books may someday disappear…
by Malcolm Naea Chun
“[A]loha is special because it upholds, reaffirms, and binds relationships,” University of Hawaii cultural specialist Malcolm Naea Chun writes in this slim 2011 book. “Aloha should not be taken lightly. It should not be used casually or frivolously.” This is the kind of thinking that makes this book mandatory reading for everyone–residents and visitors–and it’s why I’m including the book on this list, even though it’s not specifically about Maui. But it’s more than simply a primer on how to say “aloha” without sounding like a tourist. This book explains that the word is far more than a mere greeting or goodbye or even just another expression of “love.” Aloha is complex, profound and purely Hawaiian. Read this book, and you’ll never look at the myriad commercial names that include the word “aloha” the same way again.
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by Jill Engledow
Former Maui News reporter Jill Engledow has written a number of great non-fiction books about Maui–like Haleakala: A History of the Maui Mountain and Maui 101–but her 2013 novel The Island Decides is really something unique. She started the book two decades ago, slowly but steadily writing and rewriting it until last year, when she finally decided that people could read it. The resulting story, about a young, ignorant mother who comes to Maui in 1971 to find her young daughter, doesn’t just show how the island reacted to the hippie invasion of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It shows what people were like back then, on the Mainland and in Hawaii, which paints a colorful picture of how Maui has changed–for better and worse. “Tourism was not the culture of the islands [back then],” Engledow told me earlier this year. “E komo mai, welcoming people–all of that, which now seems like a welcoming ploy, was real.”
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by Patrick Vinton Kirch
Kahiki Nui, the place where Polynesians apparently first came ashore in Hawaii, is one of Maui’s most remote regions. It’s also virtually untouched, with little cattle ranching and no commercial development. That means it’s the perfect place for archaeologists to study pre-Contact Hawaiian life. For 17 years, UC Berkeley Professor Patrick Vinton Kirch researched Kahiki Nui’s thousands of archaeological sites, learning over time how people far removed from the ali’i ate, worshipped, worked and played. While not strictly an academic book, it will exercise your mind. Kirch is a scientist, and that means he believes in documenting everything (one whole paragraph deals with the type of notebook paper Kirch and his students used during their research). But there is no greater resource for understanding a part of Maui that even Hawaiian historians largely ignored. The only downside is the book’s price tag: $49 from UH Press. Even the Kindle version on Amazon is $39.20.
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by Paul Wood
These days Paul Wood writes wonderfully thoughtful and fascinating longform stories for glossy magazines like Maui No Ka Oi, but a few decades ago he had a column in the old Haleakala Times called Four Wheels Five Corners. This book, published in 2002, is a collection of those columns. From his Haiku home, Wood used the column to write stories about sometimes odd, contradictory nature of the island, and our places on it. Now when I say “stories,” I mean just that–not totally factual, evidence-based, super-objective narratives about people, places or events, but stories. Like the time Wood got a visit from the friendly neighborhood cable guy. Or the time a physicist named Farnsworth turned a broken down Toyota truck belonging to a failed Maui tanning salon operator into a time machine. Just stories–stuff that may or may not have actually happened in reality, but that still represent a true picture of Maui. And isn’t that what us writers are trying to do in the first place?
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by George Kahumoku Jr. and Paul Konwiser
Anyone who’s seen George Kahumoku’s slack key show at the Napili Kai Beach Resort will be familiar with at least some of the stories in this book, which was published in 2000 by Kealia Press. His talent as a musician is legendary in Hawaii–he’s got the Grammy and Na Hoku Hanohano Awards to prove it. He’s also a teacher, farmer and wonderfully entertaining teller of yarns. Part memoir of growing up in Hawaii, part collection of poems and often witty and funny stories about local living, A Hawaiian Life is a genuine joy to read–including the chapters where Kahumoku battles cancer and sharks, respectively. Not only is the book still in print, but I think Kahumoku still sells it at his shows.
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by Wayne Moniz
Though mostly known as a playwright, Wayne Moniz is also a great poet and short story writer. He’s written a number of books, but Under Maui Skies, which Maui-based Koa Books published in 2009, really captures the island’s rich diversity of people and history. The bulk of the book consists of seven stories, each written in a different genre and set in a different time and island location. One deals with anxious soldiers in a Paia bunker hours before the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. Another is a humorous detective story set in 1939 Wailuku. There’s a western, love story and even a bit of science fiction in there, too. The later quarter of the book is a collection of Moniz’s poetry–short, simply phrased and beautifully composed.
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by Cummins E. Speakman, Jr.
This is the closest thing to a straight narrative history of Maui that I could find. It starts with a discussion of the demigod Maui, then outlines the arrival of the first Polynesians and the history of Hawaiians (before and after the contact with Europeans) before bringing us to more or less the present day. Though originally published in 1978, Mutual Publishing updated (with the help of Jill Engledow) and reprinted it in 2001. As Speakman writes in his preface, he “tried to tread the fine line between a scholarly work and one that is written for the general reader.” The result is a readable but authoritative look at the island’s often bloody past–the details of which aren’t simply available elsewhere. In fact, this book will give you new, darker insight into places like Iao Valley, Olowalu and La Perouse Bay.
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8. SHAVE ICE
by Tom Stevens
Published in 1989 by the Maui Publishing Co., Shave Ice is a collection of stories from former Maui News columnist Tom Stevens. Long out of print but still available on local library shelves, the book holds a great deal of wisdom and humor about Maui in the 1970s and ‘80s that you just can’t find anywhere else. Stevens was the quintessential columnist, filling his stories not just with random, self-serving name-dropping or his own rambling thoughts, but with careful reporting and humorous insight. Ever hear of the big pineapple spill in Kuau back in 1976? How about Leilani Koa, the famous female bouncer of Makawao? Or that time back in 1988 when state officials predicted that eight million tourists would annually visit Maui by 2002 (the number hovers around two million to this day)? If not, then go read Stevens’ book!
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by Patricia Jennings and Maria Ausherman
In 1939, the famous painter Georgia O’Keeffe spent three months on Maui, mostly in Hana. She was on assignment for the Dole Pineapple Company to produce to paintings of their fruit. And painted, she did–the book (which is published by Maui-based Koa Books) reproduces her gorgeous images–though she found the pineapple ugly and refused to put it to canvas. The story of what she did on the island–and how Dole ultimately got her to paint a damned pineapple–comes to us from her Maui guide at the time: then-12-year-old Patricia Jennings. Her story, full of charm and style, shows a side of Maui (and O’Keeffe) that we’ve rarely seen.
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10. LAHAINA NOON
by Eric Paul Shaffer
Today he lives on Oahu, but a decade ago, Eric Paul Shaffer was an English teacher at Maui Community College who lived in Kula and occasionally wrote really good book reviews for MauiTime. In 2005, San Jose, California-based Leaping Dog Press published Lahaina Noon, a collection of Shafer’s best poetry about Maui. The name, Shaffer wrote, “is the term chosen in 1990 by the Bishop Museum Planetarium to designate the moment twice in a tropical year when the sun passes directly overhead on its journey between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.” Whether he’s describing Haleakala (“silvered in a spray of rays”), Maui onions (“you are a sultry pearl swelling in the rich red soil of Kula”) or even lovers hugging on Pulehu Road (“gazing over a field of sugar cane at two boiling columns of smoke rising from the mill”), his vivid words show off the island’s brilliant colors better than any glossy photograph.
Cover design: Darris Hurst