Wednesday, May 6, 2009

15 books

Bill Walsh has challenged me on Facebook to do the 15 books thing — but why shold I drive traffic to Facebook, which doesn’t need it, instead of this blog, which does?

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.


  1. Oh, yes, "The Tummy Trilogy"! I went with Steingarten for a foodie book, but it could have just as easily been Trillin.

  2. Absolutely Conan Doyle. Doubleday's "The Complete Sherlock Holmes" would be first on my list.

  3. Based on the ones you love which I love, I've got a couple to add to my "to read" pile. Thanks!

  4. How lovely to find some old favorites, and some possible soon-to-be favorites as well. Anyone who knows and loves Rex Stout has excellent taste!

  5. Mr. McIntyre,

    What do you think of the writings of Allen Drury? I really liked Advise and Consent and some of his other books.

  6. I enjoyed Advise and Consent but found the subsequent novels much less satisfactory.

  7. No way the works of Cormac McCarthy make this list. His punctuation is too terrible.

  8. G.K. Chesterton was once asked what book he'd most like to have on a desert island.

    "Thomas's Guide to Practical Shipbuilding."

  9. I don't know if I can come up with fifteen, let alone in fifteen minutes (and I do not visit Facebook), but let me give it a shot. In no particular order:

    The Handmaid's TaleFear of FlyingInternThe Godfatherany Bill James Baseball Abstract, but especially the ones from 1984-87 that aggrandize Cal Ripken
    People of the Book (the most recent addition)
    The Chicago Manual of Style (the preferred style guide for most of my past employers)
    The Official Scrabble DictionaryThe Hite ReportThe Hite Report on Male SexualityJulia Child and More CompanyThe Turner Diaries (know thine enemy, I always say)
    The three dictionaries I won in the regional spelling bees I competed in as a kid (covered in dark blue pigskin and embossed with my name in gold)
    Any mainstream Bible

    Important to me, of course, does not mean they should be important to you as well. These are simply some of the books that shaped my life, beginning at about age nine.

  10. I agree that Emma is Austen's best, for exactly the reasons you cite.