EVERYONE who likes to read has prepared, at one time or another, a mental list of the books he or she would take to a desert island, the one where the tropic breezes waft gently and there is an attractive companion to share the fish and coconuts with. Classics tend to predominate, since most of us figure to be marooned long enough to work our way through, say, The Tale of Genji or The Iliad in Greek or all of Thomas Aquinas. The smart choices, we vaguely realize, would actually include the Boy Scout Handbook and a good guide to boat building, but that's another fantasy.
A more common yet similar situation occurs when we visit friends or rent a vacation cottage and, finding it difficult to fall asleep in strange surroundings, look around our temporary bedroom for something, anything to read. At such moments few sights can be as pleasant as a shelf of Guest-Room Books -- especially when the shelf doesn't simply hold the complete works of Edna Ferber and Frank G. Slaughter or a long run of Reader's Digest Condensed Books.
The essential quality of a proper Guest-Room Book is that it must avoid all the normal requirements of a "good read." Nothing demanding, nothing remotely gripping. At 2:15 in the morning we want soothing trifles, anecdotes, a line or two of poetry to savor in the dark. Ideally, items should be familiar, cozy, browsable, nostalgic and short -- like the following titles, conveniently arranged according to the major light-reading genres. Each category lists three possible choices. All households are presumed to start with the Bible, Shakespeare and at least one novel by Jane Austen.
Mystery: 1. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes. The fog rolls in, the fire burns low and the game is always afoot. 2. G.K. Chesterton, The Father Brown Omnibus. Paradoxes resolved from an "invisible" man to the hammer of God. 3. Dorothy L. Sayers' anthology, The Omnibus of Crime. Brilliant introductory essay on the history of the mystery and supernatural tale, followed by classic examples.
Horror and Fantasy: 1. M.R. James, Collected Ghost Stories. Accursed manuscripts, haunted bed clothes and cozy, antiquarian chills. 2. John Collier's Fancies and Goodnights. Witty Jazz Age tales of magic elixirs and deals with the devil. 3. Gods, Men and Ghosts: The Best Supernatural Tales of Lord Dunsany (edited by E.F. Bleiler). Classic club stories, told over a large whiskey, of strange sights, Munchausen-like exploits and macabre encounters: "The Gibbelins eat, as is well known, nothing less good than man."
Humor: 1. British version: P.G. Wodehouse, The World of Mr. Mulliner. Silliness in the world of spats, aunts and beautifully crafted sentences. American version: James Thurber, The Thurber Carnival. Includes such classics as "The Night the Bed Fell," "The Macbeth Murder Mystery" and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." 2. Flann O'Brien, The Best of Myles. The funniest man in Ireland, always dreaming up "services" such as ventriloquist-escorts who carry on both sides of a brilliant conversation, thus making their companions look attractive and witty. 3. The New Yorker Cartoon Book. Or any album of drawings by Charles Addams, George Price, Peter Arno, George Booth, Gary Larson, G.B. Trudeau, Edward Gorey, etc.
Biography: 1. The Conversations of Dr. Johnson (edited by Raymond Postgate). For many, Boswell's Life of Johnson is the most diverting book in the world; this abridgment highlights the good doctor's grouchy, aphoristic talk. 2. John Aubrey's Brief Lives. Sexual scandals among English worthies of the 16th and 17th century, including Sir Walter Raleigh, who, when he wasn't placing his cloak before the queen, had more than an eye for her maids in waiting. 3. Any good collection of letters, such as those of Flannery O'Connor, Flaubert or Oliver Wendell Holmes. What guilty pleasure compares with reading another person's mail?
Poetry: 1. W.H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson's five-volume Poets of the English Language. Dazzling introductions by Auden; a survey of English and American poetry that manages to be both catholic and idiosyncratic. 2. Any of the Oxford books of 16th-, 17th-, 18th-, 19th- or 20th-century poetry. Some of these, like Philip Larkin's on 20th-century verse, are extremely eccentric and consequently treasure troves of the unfamiliar and fine. 3. The complete works of a favorite poet, e.g. T.S. Eliot, Alexander Pope, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop, etc. etc. Sometimes you want to immerse yourself in a single writer's sensibility. Guest-rooms, though, should probably avoid the later work of Sylvia Plath.
Children's Classics: 1. Any good collection of classic fairy tales. Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book and its successors are semi-standard; these are some of the first, and best, stories we ever hear in our lives. The shortest, most wistful of all? "Once upon a time they lived happily ever after." 2. Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. More memorable lines per square inch than any other book in English, excepting only Shakespeare and the Bible. 3. Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows. A book as warm and toasty as an easy-chair by the fire.
Deep Thoughts: 1. La Rochefoucauld's Maxims. One- or two-sentence observations that you can think about for a moment or for half your life: "In love there is always one who kisses and one who offers the cheek." 2. Montaigne's Essays. If we had to send a human being to Alpha Centauri to represent our race at the pan-Galactic Council, Montaigne is probably our best choice. 3. A good anthology of Presocratic philosophy. Pythagoras, Zeno, Democritus -- all that remains of these philosophical founding fathers are tantalizing fragments, and they are just right for late-night meditations: "The waking have one world in common; sleepers have each a private world of his own" -- Heraclitus.
Reference: 1. Any of the Oxford Companions to English, French or Classical Literature; any of the Oxford Books of Political Anecdotes, Marriage, Death, Dreams, etc; or Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. The old reliables: Standbys of bedside browsing for years. 2. Kenneth Clark, Civilisation. Beautiful pictures to dream over and a civilized guide to them. 3. The New Columbia Encyclopedia. One volume containing nearly all knowledge. Ideal for serendipitous reading or finding out the difference between a quark and a quasar.
Journals and Diaries. 1. The Diaries of Virginia Woolf. Gossip into literature. 2. Pages from the Goncourt Journal (chosen and translated by Robert Baldick). Gossip for gossip's sake, starring Flaubert, Zola, Maupassant and other high-living French authors. 3. Henry David Thoreau, Walden. Autobiography, observations of nature and philosophy -- all set down in sentences as crisp and tart as a Granny Smith apple: "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us."
Odds and Ends: One should always include some personal favorites on any guest room bookshelf, though it is prudent to provide only "borrowable" copies. Consider: the locked-room mysteries of John Dickson Carr. E.V. Lucas and George Morrow's What a Life!, that improbable Edwardian-Surrealist classic. James R. Newman's capacious The World of Mathematics. Randall Jarrell's hilarious portrait of academic life, Pictures from an Institution. Cyril Connolly's moody, aphoristic "word-cycle," The Unquiet Grave. Robert Phelps and Peter Deane's scrapbook-almanac, The Literary Life. E.F. Bleiler's definitive Guide to Supernatural Fiction with plot summaries of some strange, strange tales. Anyone's commonplace book. Everyone will have his or her own favorites.
And oh yes, one last item: Leonard Maltin's Guide to TV Movies and Videos -- just in case.
Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World.