Probably. Yet these well-meaning literacy campaigns generally made reading feel like schoolwork. Now I think it is worth emphasizing that getting acquainted with the greatest cultural achievements of mankind, in addition to increasing one’s stock of knowledge, gives added pleasure to life. After all, we read because it’s exciting. Metaphorically speaking, books always take us to the big city, opening our eyes to the fullness and diversity of the world. In contrast, those who ban or censor them want to keep us on the farm, limiting our experience to safe or approved orthodoxy.
It’s here, in fact, that reading lists — great books, overlooked books, or favorite books — prove their worth. Like the mention “Vaut le Voyage” in the Michelin travel guide, they implicitly guarantee that the titles selected are “worth the trip”. You will laugh in front of “Three men in a boat” by Jérôme K. Jérôme, your heart will break during “La Princesse de Clèves” by Madame de Lafayette, you will vibrate in front of “La Saga de Njal”, you will feel smarter to have spent time with Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson”. You really will be too.
I happened to be sifting through the trash I grandly call my files and papers recently when I discovered a half-forgotten storage box. Inside was a heaping sheaf of photocopies and pages torn from magazines and newspapers—lists of books of all kinds. They are now stacked, pell-mell, at my side as I type.
At the top is a clipping from a 1976 issue of The New York Times Book Review in which a dozen authors choose the books they enjoyed most that year. For example, Joan Didion speaks of Joseph Conrad: “I… re-read ‘Victory’, mainly because I had worked with a first-person narrator” – she had just finished “A Book of Common Prayer” – “and I wanted to see how Conrad handled some of the issues presented by an uninvolved narrator. It turned out to be an exercise in humility.
Next in the pile are several stapled pages from the 1993 London Times Literary Supplement article, “International Books of the Year.” There, Joyce Carol Oates writes: “Among contemporary books, none have struck me as more ambitious, instructive and rewarding than the massive anthology ‘Speech and Power: The African-American Essay and Its Cultural Contents from Polemics to Pulpit’. edited by Gérald Early. She concludes her enthusiastic endorsement of this two-volume work by saying with foresight, “A revolution has been underway for some time in American culture, spurred on by black consciousness, and ‘Speech and Power’ names the cast.”
Following this, I came across “Big Brother’s Reading List” from a 1976 issue of National Review. The Anonymous Compilers offer a corrective to what they perceive to be the overly liberal bias and self-lacerations of the titles selected for the bicentennial by the American Library Association. The magazine’s alternative list includes Jacques Barzun’s “God’s Country and Mine”, described as “the definitive retort to fashionable anti-Americanism”, and Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop”, summed up as a “prophetically satirical novel about the wars of liberation”.
After unearthing John Pelan’s essay “Collecting Modern Horror,” from a 2002 issue of Cemetery Dance magazine, I learn that this genius authority recommends 91 titles, ranging from Robert Aickman’s “Night Voices” to “Day of the Triffids” by John Wyndham – both my favorites. From a now unidentifiable source – I am woefully unable to keep records – travel writer Colin Thubron praises Freya Stark’s “Ionia: A Quest”, his study of the classical Greek cities of Turkey, and the Fantasy grandmaster Michael Moorcock urges rediscovery of George Meredith’s ‘The Amazing Marriage’ and ‘Diana of the Crossways’ feature Victorian heroines with a modern feminist spirit.
Going through these press clippings and photocopies, surprises abound. Did you know that Norman Mailer, Northrop Frye and Guy Davenport ardently admired Oswald Spengler’s “Decline of the West”? A list of books from Trinity College in Connecticut, annotated by Professor Harry Todd Costello, is particularly pungent: Benjamin Jowett’s 19th-century translation of Plato’s “Dialogues” shows a “gentle escape from the finer points” and Ivan Turgenev’s beautifully composed novels share “a humorless sadness.”
From another dive into the pile, I discover that Edith Pargeter – alias Ellis Peters, creator of the mysteries of Brother Cadfael – considers Clemence Housman’s “The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis” to be “the finest work on an Arthurian theme since Malory…I know of nothing in literature more intense or of such controlled intensity.In a 2002 issue of The Week magazine, reviewer James Atlas called Frank Conroy’s “Stop-Time” “the best book ever written about what it’s like to be a boy growing up in post-war America”. For a regular feature in Antaeus Quarterly dubbed “The Neglected Books of the 20th Century”, Laurie Colwin – author of the wonderful ‘Happy All the Time’ – selects ‘The Liar’, by Thomas Savage, a writer currently being rediscovered because of one of his other novels, ‘The Power of the Dog’.
And then I discover… that I don’t have enough room here, having barely begun to work my way through these yellowed pages of bookish enthusiasm. Let me close, however, with a 1997 Spectator magazine survey in which English biographer Sheridan Morley names “Personal History”, by longtime Post editor Katharine Graham, as “the memoir of the year “. It “tells us who really…runs Washington, who actually did it.” If only that were still the case!
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.