Probably everyone has at one time mulled over which 10 books to take to a desert island. The Bible, Shakespeare and an unabridged dictionary are among the most popular choices; the practical and far-sighted usually include the lastest edition of the Boy Scout Manual; George Bernard Shaw, clever as always, asked only for blank notebooks and a pen. Now two Englishmen -- novelist Frederic Raphael and critic Kenneth McLeish -- have, so to speak, entered the lists with this "library of over 3,000 works."
A handsomely designed, tall, narrow volume, "The List of Books" is divided into 44 categories, ranging from Anthropology to Travel and Exploration, passing along the way Biography, Feminism, Fiction, History, Home and Garden, Reference and Sociology. Within each category, which is preceded by a half-page introduction, books are listed alphabetically by author. To this basic information, the authors append each book's publication date, two- to six- line descriptions, and appropriate corss-reference to related works. Perhaps most visible innovation is the use of a series of "Guide Michelin"-like symbols: an exclamation mark, for instance, denotes a "seminal book that changed our thinking"; an asterisk, one that is "infuriating, possibly illuminating"; and a starred item is "not to be missed."
Unlike the Great Books programs of Mortimer J. Adler or St. John's College in Annapolis, the Raphael and McLeish "library" makes no claim to include only the established classics. It is a personal selection, although the authors acknowledge the expert assistance of several dozen authorities. Despite flaws, "The List of Books" does seem a generally good starting point for anyone who wishes to read beyond the best-seller list, to discover some of the influential unexpected and eccentric books of the past.
For example, Patrick Trevor-Roper's "The World Through Blunted Sight" sounds absolutely beguiling -- a study of the effects of impaired vision on the work of artists and writers. Nobert Elias' "The Civilizing Process" clarifies the relationship between the development of manners and the growth of the state, "in other words, how the growth of social control leads to the growth of self -control, con straint to re straint." And Jack Lindsay's "Blast Power and Ballistics" describes how "jobservations of lightning and earthquakes led to ballistics, catapults, and other war machines." Such unfamiliar titles, so tantalizingly summarized, suggest the proper function of a book list: to guide a reader through a subject and make him eager to read some of its books.
Unfortunately, Raphael and McLeish's book is marred by numerous small errors -- exaxperating in a work of even casual reference. Take three out of the four listings for E. B. White. "The White-Garnett Letters" does not contain this essayist's correspondence, but that of T. H. White, author of "the Once and Future King"; White's revision of Strunk's "The Elements of Style" first came out in 1957, not 1935; and perferring "the Trumpet of the Swan" to Charlotte's Web" seems plainly perverse.
Elsewhere, short-story writer Paul Bowles appears as John Bowles; several publication dates are gotten wrong; typos proliferate in the names of authors and books. These are, of course, mostly nits. One can figure out what the authors mean, though people who make lists ought to be more attentive. What bothers deeply are the literary misjudgements. Laclos' profound "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" -- Gide thought it the second greatest French novel -- makes its appearance under Sex and Love, along with how-to manuals and pornography. What's more, the description is larely wrong, ludicrously relegating the Marquise de Merteuil, a manipulative genius, to the status of Valmont's "girlfriend." "Don Quixote" and ?baudelaire's "Flowers of Evil" are Michelinized as minor masterpieces, though if there are more influential books in Western literature I don't know what they are. Rousseau's "Confessions" doesn't even rate that well -- only a star.
Such misjudgments perhaps reflect a certain breeziness to this undertaking. Without the frank pedagogy of earlier list-makers, from John Lubbock to Clifton Fadiman -- men who hoped to preserve an endangered cultural heritage -- Raphael and McLeish's project lacks sufficient ideology or organizing purpose, reflecting merely the itinerary of two souls adventure among the masterpieces.
No reading list is without pleasure, and I had much pleasure in this one, but while awaiting a corrected edition, readers in search of guidance should know about a few similar books. For those with literary interests, F. Seymour Smith's "An English Library" remains unsurpassed; it lists both standard and offbeat classics, all of them described with aninfectious enthusiasm. The same author's "What Shall I Read Next?" devoted solely to 20th-century titles, is also good, though less sure in its judgments. "Good Reading: A Guide for Serious Readers," edited by J. Sherwood Weber and available in a periodically updated paperback from New Amercian Library, is extremely wide-ranging and competent, but without much zest or idiosyncrasy. F. W. Bateson's "A Guide to English Literaure" is more scholarly than any of these, listing the best editions (as to 1968) of major authors and important secondary texts. Several of these lists are out of print, but all can be found in the library or in second-hand book shops. In fact, librarians and booksellers often make the best of all guides to reading, generously providing expertise and enthusiasm, as well as the books themselves.