They claim that going on a leave or sabbatical can bring you back to your job relaxed and reinvigorated. Not always. Last May I quit writing my regular page 15 column for Book World, mainly to gain some time to finish my own book. But even an extra couple of days a week turned out to be not quite enough, and so at the beginning of August, I started a 10-week leave of absence from The Post. I did finish the project -- that's another story -- but now find myself wishing I'd spent more of my time at Cocoa Beach, or on vacation in France, or just clearing my head.

Instead I dully sat from 8 to 10 hours a day in front of a computer terminal, or on a couch with a pen in my hand and a sheaf of printouts at my side. Oh, I was happy -- happier than is credible -- to adopt this sedentary, repetitive routine, but it could hardly be dubbed R&R. My guess is that it'll take me a few weeks back at work, amid the hubbub of the newsroom and the chatter of my colleagues, to dispel the accumulated bleariness from my word-addled brain. That, and a return to some regular exercise at the Y.

Still, this respite from reviewing did allow for a kind of busman's holiday: For the first time in almost 25 years, I could read Purely for Pleasure. So what does a tired literary guy pick up after a day at the keyboard? The latest issue of Maxim? TV Guide? Afraid not. For some of us, the Protestant ethic may rest, but it never sleeps. Here are the books I read or reread, along with a few of my notes on each title.

1) The Green Archer, by Edgar Wallace. An American crime lord retires to England, where he lives, safe, in a fortified castle -- until the appearance of a silent and deadly bowman. Who is the Green Archer, and what is his purpose? Ingenious plotting; multiple points of view; a clear, simple style, 1920s period flavor; surprisingly cinematic denouement. Great fun, if not quite a masterpiece in the class of, say, Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders or John Dickson Carr's The Crooked Hinge.

2) Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. To many, the greatest novel of all time, or at least the champeen Russian novel. Magnificent opening and closing chapters, particularly Anna's almost Joycean stream of consciousness before the suicide. Has anyone noticed that Vronsky's love isn't shallow? That he grows from an infatuated rake into a devoted, steadfast "husband," who does his best to deal with a half-mad woman, and whose suffering over her loss leads him to seek a soldier's death at the front? Terrific psychological insight into people's overwhelming desire to do what they perceive is the "right" thing. Nonetheless, even after this second reading of AK, in my heart I still prefer Dostoevsky's anguished and black-humored mindscapes over Tolstoy's perfect tableaux. I'm a night person.

3) Journals, 1987-1989, by Anthony Powell. Day-to-day reflections by the author of the acclaimed Dance to the Music of Time. Shrewd, sometimes acerbic comments on books, literary visitors (Naipaul, Pinter), English society (a regular Debrett's Peerage and Who's Who); much vexation over dental plate; amazing amount of reading for a man in his eighties -- Shakespeare plays, Gronow's memoirs, Larkin's novels, Kipling's poems, even Clarissa. "I reread Delacroix's Journal (tr. Lucy Norton, rather a jolly fat girl, who used to frequent rackety parties in ancient days; had, I believe, a great passion for the pretty model Hodge)." He even rereads Anthony Burgess's long Earthly Powers to check his sense that it didn't quite "come off." Popcorn for Anglophiles and litterateurs -- and there are two other volumes.

4) The Street of Crocodiles, by Bruno Schulz. Phantasmagoric account of life in a small town in 1940s Poland, recounted by a young boy. Astonishing prose, reminiscent of a darker Steven Millhauser: "In apartments of that kind, wallpapers must be very weary and bored with the incessant changes in all the cadenzas of rhythm; no wonder that they are susceptible to distant, dangerous dreams. The essence of furniture is unstable, degenerate and receptive to abnormal temptations. . ." Hope to write about Schulz a bit more this winter.

5) Put a Lid on It, by Donald E. Westlake. The latest from our most versatile and reliably entertaining crime writer. Not a Dortmunder caper, but with the same easygoing, light-hearted tone. An amiable thief is sprung from prison by a group of rich and sleazy bigshots. Why? Politics, double-cross and prose as smooth as sipping whisky. Happily, Westlake has written something like 50 books, so one is never likely to run out.

6) Life of Johnson, by James Boswell. Volume two of the four-volume Hill/Powell scholarly edition. As for so many people, Boswell's Johnson is one of my regular bedside books, turned to in times of stress, when I need the 18th century as, to borrow Saintsbury's phrase, a "place of rest and refreshment." Moreover, for one of an indecisive temperament, Johnson's absolute self-assurance inspires: "Asked if he really was of the opinion, that though, in general, happiness was very rare in human life, a man was not sometimes happy in the moment that was present, he answered 'Never, but when he is drunk.' . . . It is wonderful, when a calculation is made, how little the mind is actually employed in the discharge of any profession. . . . My dear Sir, never accustom your mind to mingle virtue and vice. The woman's a whore, and there's an end on't."

7) Persuasion, by Jane Austen. Her greatest novel? I love Pride and Prejudice for its gaiety and humor, but this last work seems to probe even more deeply into the human heart. A young woman bows to authority, to "persuasion," and rejects the young naval officer she loves. Never marrying, Anne Elliott passes her twenties amid silly, shallow people, all of her own good sense and sensibility completely unperceived. Years later, Capt. Wentworth accidentally returns to the neighborhood, wealthy, full of honors and the cynosure of feminine eyes. An autumnal fairy tale for grown-ups.

8) Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad. "In the destructive element immerse!" A masterfully complex narrative, almost an example of undecidability: The young seaman Jim regards himself as a romantic hero, who in an unexpected crisis fails to act appropriately. Is he therefore self-deluded about his own character? And is his later self-sacrifice inherently any different from his act of cowardice? How can any man know himself? As narrator Marlowe says, "The trouble was to get at the truth of anything."

9) Writing Home, by Alan Bennett. Journal entries, essays and reflections by one of England's best playwrights ("The Madness of King George"), famous for riding a bicycle around London and allowing a schizophrenic woman to park her camper in his front yard for more than a dozen years. Imagine Christian meekness and regard for others supported by deep learning and a sad-sack, self-deprecating wit: "In one stratagem for not working today I find myself carefully cleaning off the accumulation of dried ointment from the nozzle of the Vaseline Derma Care hand-lotion dispenser."

10) A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor. In 1933, an 18-year-old English boy sets out to walk across Europe. More than 40 years later, he recreates his misadventures -- a night with two lovely Ma{dier}dchen, Nazis at the Hofbra{dier}uhaus, the kindness of scholars and German business people, visits to cathedrals. Leigh Fermor possesses an intensely visual imagination: One two-page description of grossly feasting burghers could be Klimt expressionism in prose: "Hands like bundles of sausages flew nimbly, packing in forkload after forkload of ham, salami, frankfurter, krenwurst, and blutwurst and stone tankards were lifted for long swallows of liquid which sprang out again instantaneously on cheek and brow. They might have been competing with stop-watches."

11) The Laughing Policeman, by Martin Sjowell and Per Wahloo. Part of a series of police procedurals, set in Sweden, featuring Martin Beck -- dour, kind, alienated from his wife, untiring in his work. A brilliantly structured and sustained novel, gripping yet leisurely, almost restful, considering its starting point: One night everyone on a city bus is machine-gunned to death, including a policeman. By whom? And why? When Jonathan Franzen noted, in a Book World survey last year, that this was his favorite "comfort" book, I dug out my copy.

12) Don Quijote, by Miguel Cervantes. A confession: I had tried three times before in my life to read this immortal classic, and each time bogged down after a couple of hundred pages. But Burton Raffel's new version clicked, and I finished it with more than doggedness -- with deep enjoyment. And yes, volume two, the "sequel," really is better than the first part: At one point, Don Q descends into a chivalric underworld, where he has a vision of Dulcinea. Noticing her faithful servitor, she sends over one of her companions with a request: "My Lady Dulcinea del Toboso kisses your hands, your grace, and begs me to return and tell her how you are, and also, because the need is great, she also wants me to beg your grace, as urgently as I know how, if you can lend her six dollars, or however much your grace happens to have with you, against the security of this brand-new cotton petticoat which I have right here, and she promises to pay you back very soon." When the knight gives her the money, the lady-in-waiting goes literally cartwheeling away. Nearly every post-modern fiction experiment was first tried in Don Quijote or the even more radical Tristram Shandy (about which Johnson made one of his rare gaffes: "Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last").

13) Because I Was Flesh: The Autobiography of Edward Dahlberg. Can a masterpiece be overlooked or forgotten? Here is one. Yet how to describe Dahlberg's voice, as unique as H.P. Lovecraft's? Old Testament prophet meets Dead End Kid? Robert -- Anatomy of Melancholy -- Burton rewrites tales of American immigrant life? "Kansas City is a vast inland city, and its marvelous river, the Missouri, heats the senses; the maple, alder, elm and cherry trees with which the town abounds are songs of desire, and only the almonds of ancient Palestine can awaken the hungry pores more deeply." Dahlberg's childhood is dominated by his concupiscent barber-mother Lizzie, by years spent in a Cleveland orphanage that rivals Oliver Twist's, and by youthful lusts and dreams of authorship. No one who admires baroque prose can turn its pages without admiration and envy.

14) The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. I'd never read this before, arguably the greatest 19th-century sensation novel (though some of Collins's fans argue for No Name, and that expert on the Victorian detectival and supernatural, E.F. Bleiler, would choose Sheridan Le Fanu's Uncle Silas). Not at all fustian, as you might fear. Was Marian Halcombe modeled after George Eliot? Were characters by Conan Doyle (Thaddeus Sholto in The Sign of Four) and Evelyn Waugh (Antony Blanche) inspired, if only distantly, by the stuttering, epicene hypochondriac Frederick Fairlie? Any serious reader of detective stories will guess why Wilkie stresses the resemblance between the mad Woman in White and the wealthy Laura Glyde. All that said, the mystery is consummately plotted, every detail needed and carefully chosen: If you pick up this long, long novel and shake it, nothing will fall out.

So, not a dud in the lot -- and I'm not even mentioning the poetry: Donne, Stevens, Baudelaire. I'm sorry, though, that time ran out before I could start Howard Overing Sturgis's Belchamber, J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur, E. Nesbit's Complete History of the Bastable Family, some Barbara Pym and Dawn Powell and . . . . Oh well. Good thing I'm going to live forever. *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com.