Yesterday I registered disappointment on Facebook and Twitter over a published list of twenty-five supposedly important and essential books that turned out to include Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf and The Elements of Style. I looked once at a list of a hundred supposedly important books, only to discover a damned Dan Brown novel.
Lists of important or best or essential books are going to be so arbitrary, idiosyncratic, or boringly conventional that they are a waste of your time. I have a better idea for identifying important books: Tell me which ones you have read more than once.
I'll go first.
As winter approaches, I'm hoping for a snowed-in day, on which I can brew a pot of tea and settle down with Trollope's Barchester Towers, which I re-read with profound satisfaction every ten years or so. (Or perhaps I will pick up Eliot's Middlemarch, which I read forty years ago. I can't stand any of Eliot's other novels, but I loved every word of Middlemarch. And if it is more than one snow day in a row, I may pick up Boswell's Life of Johnson, one of the best books ever written.)
I have read Randall Jarrell's Pictures From an Institution three or four times since discovering as an undergraduate at Michigan State in Roger Meiners's class on the midcentury American poets. It's an academic novel, urbane and epigrammatic.
The other academic novel I've returned to repeatedly is Nabokov's Pnin. Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada, splendid as they are, require some work from the reader, but Pnin is pure delight throughout.
All of Barbara Pym's novels, particularly Excellent Women. Very British, quiet and understated, like Jane Austen, and, also like Austen, merciless about her characters without being cruel.
I go back from time to time to John Cheever's collected short stories and Joan Didion's essays.
For the low tastes that every writer and editor should cultivate, since high school I periodically re-read my way through Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe murder mysteries. As I have said before on a number of occasions, at the end of a long day of working with professional journalists, nothing gives greater pleasure than a comfortable chair, a good light, a drink at your elbow, and a book in which disagreeable people meet violent death.