John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
The 15 books thing, if you are not familiar with facebook, invites you to list in 15 minutes 15 books important to you. In my case, I’ve construed it to be books that I’ve looked into repeateduly, or the 15 books I would want to pack up when the severance runs out and the sheriff shows up to turn me out of the house. Listed alphabetically by author, so that I don’t have to make further rankings.
Austen, Jane. Emma. Everyone loves Pride and Prejudice, as do I, but I think that this one is more penetrating about personality as well as witty.
Boswell, James, Life of Samuel Johnson. Boswell, though drunken and sometimes loutish, was not some stenographic booby. The Life is a careful assemblage of details and scenes. And I accept Boswell’s governing image of Johnson as a kind of gladiator, battling poverty, ill health, and obscurity to achieve by force of will and intellect the first great English dictionary, a milestone in literary criticism with his commentary on Shakespeare, and the foundation of modern English biography: heroism in the literary life. Great quotes, too.
Cheever, John, Collected Stories. God, I hate to leave out the Wapshot novels, but these stories are extraordinary.
Didion, Joan, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live. I encountered Didion’s work when she and John Gregory Dunne were writing for the doomed Saturday Evening Post. Nearly all of her nonfiction is collected here, and Slouching Toward Bethlehem still resonates.
Faulkner, William. The Snopes trilogy. OK, this is cheating. But The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion have to be read together.
Garner, Bryan. Garner’s Modern American Usage. So I’m a nerd.
Harris, Marvin. Our Kind. The late anthropologist summed up a career’s worth of insight into human societies in this compilation of concise essays on varied topics. But maybe I should have included Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches instead.
Johnson, Samuel. Lives of the English Poets. I said he was a foundation of modern English biography. Read the essays on Milton (of Paradise Lost, Johnson observed that “no man ever wished it longer”), Dryden, and Pope.
Larkin, Philip, Collected Poems. Even since I bought a copy of High Windows while interviewing for The Sun in 1985, I have been an admirer of Larkin’s quiet, precise, wry poetry.
Nabokox, Vladimir, Pnin. A perfect comic novel, both hilarious and humane.
Trillin, Calvin. The Tummy Trilogy. Another cheat. Alice, Let’s Eat and Tillin’s other books as a happy eater are included in one volume. Enjoy.
Trollope, Anthony. Barchester Towers. I can’t recall how many times I’ve read this novel of life among Anglican clergy in a 19th-century British cathedral town, but it has never failed to give pleasure.
Vidal, Gore. Lincoln. Yes, a novel, but one well informed by current historical scholarship. An absorbing study of the main character, with deliciously malicious takes on the secondary ones.
Waugh, Evelyn. Scoop. Funniest. Novel. About. Newspapering. Ever.
Wilbur, Richard. New and Collected Poems. One of our most literate, polished, and hunorous poets. Oh, the patter song for the syphilitic Dr. Pangloss he wrote for the original Broadway production of Candide: “Columbus and his men, they say, / Conveyed the virus hither, / By which my features rot away / And vital powers wither. / But had they not traversed the seas / And come infected back, / Just think of all the luxuries / That modern life would lack. / All bitter things conduce to sweet, / As this example shows: / Without the little spirochete / We’d have no chocolate to eat, / Nor would tobacco’s frgance greet / The European nose.”*
Fifteen — that’s not nearly enough. I’ve left out Theodore Roethke and Robert Lowell. And Lucky Jim. All of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. Conan Doyle! The Prophet Isaiah. H.L. Mencken’s Days memoirs. Mark Twain. Gatsby! Stupid Facebook meme.
* Forgive me any slips; I’m working from memory.