When I was growing up, Mortimer J. Adler championed “The Great Books of the Western World,” Clifton Fadiman promoted “The Lifetime Reading Plan” and every thrift store worth its salt carried a broken set of the Harvard Classics. All these enterprises were energized by one basic assumption: Civilization was on the ropes because fewer and fewer people engaged with the literature and intellectual achievements of the past. Instead, Americans — especially young Americans — were wallowing in ephemeral, popular amusements, which in the mid-20th century largely meant movies and television. Wouldn’t we all be better off devoting our evenings to Aristotle and Emily Dickinson?
Probably. Yet these well-intentioned literacy campaigns usually made reading sound like schoolwork. Far better, I now think, to emphasize that acquiring familiarity with humankind’s greatest cultural achievements, besides increasing one’s store of knowledge, lends an additional pleasure to life. After all, we read because it’s exciting. Metaphorically speaking, books are always taking us to the big city, opening our eyes to the world’s plenitude and diversity. By contrast, those who ban or censor them want to keep us down on the farm, restricting our experience to some safe or approved orthodoxy.
Here, in fact, is where reading lists — of Great Books, Neglected Books or Favorite Books — prove their worth. Like the Michelin travel guide endorsement “Vaut le Voyage,” they implicitly guarantee that the selected titles will be “worth the trip.” You’ll laugh over Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat,” your heart will break during Madame de Lafayette’s “The Princess of Cleves,” you’ll thrill to “Njal’s Saga,” you’ll feel smarter for having spent time with James Boswell’s “Life of Samuel Johnson.” You really will be, too.
As it happens, I was recently sifting yet again through the detritus I grandiosely call my files and papers when I turned up a half-forgotten storage box. Inside was a bulging wad of photocopies and pages torn from magazines and newspapers — book lists of every kind. They are now piled, higgledy-piggledy, by my side as I type.
At the top is a clipping from a 1976 issue of the New York Times Book Review in which a dozen authors choose the books they most enjoyed that year. For example, Joan Didion talks about Joseph Conrad: “I … reread ‘Victory,’ principally because I had been working with a first-person narrator”— she’d just finished “A Book of Common Prayer” — "and I wanted to see how Conrad had handled some of the problems an uninvolved narrator presents. This turned out to be an exercise in humility.”
Next in the stack are several stapled pages from the London Times Literary Supplement’s 1993 feature, “International Books of the Year.” There, Joyce Carol Oates writes “Of contemporary books, none has struck me as more ambitious, instructive, and rewarding than the massive anthology, ‘Speech and Power: The African-American Essay and Its Cultural Contents from Polemics to Pulpit,’ edited by Gerald Early.” She concludes her enthusiastic endorsement for this two-volume work by presciently declaring, “A revolution has been underway for some time in American culture, stimulated by black consciousness, and ‘Speech and Power’ names the players.”
Following this, I come upon “Big Brother’s Reading List” excised from a 1976 issue of National Review. The unnamed compilers offer a corrective to what they perceive as the over-liberal bias and self-lacerations of the titles selected for the Bicentennial by the American Library Association. The magazine’s alternative list includes Jacques Barzun’s “God’s Country and Mine,” described as “the definitive rejoinder to fashionable anti-Americanism,” and Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop,” summed up as a “prophetically satiric novel about wars of liberation.”
After unearthing John Pelan’s essay “Collecting Modern Horror,” clipped from a 2002 issue of Cemetery Dance magazine, I learn that this genial authority recommends 91 titles, running from Robert Aickman’s “Night Voices” to John Wyndham’s “The Day of the Triffids”— both favorites of mine. From a now unidentifiable source — I’m miserably inept at record-keeping — the travel writer Colin Thubron praises Freya Stark’s “Ionia: A Quest,” her study of the classical Greek cities of Turkey, and fantasy’s grandmaster Michael Moorcock urges the rediscovery of George Meredith’s “The Amazing Marriage” and “Diana of the Crossways,” both highlighting Victorian heroines exhibiting a modern feminist spirit.
As I skim through these clippings and photocopies, surprises abound. Did you know that Norman Mailer, Northrop Frye and Guy Davenport ardently admired Oswald Spengler’s “The Decline of the West”? A book list from Trinity College in Connecticut, annotated by Professor Harry Todd Costello, is winningly pungent: Benjamin Jowett’s 19th-century translation of Plato’s “Dialogues” shows a “smooth evasion of the subtler points” and Ivan Turgenev’s beautifully composed novels share “a humorless sadness.”
From another dive into the pile, I discover that Edith Pargeter — a.k.a. Ellis Peters, creator of the Brother Cadfael mysteries — regards Clemence Housman’s “The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis” as “the finest work on an Arthurian theme since Malory … I know of nothing in literature more intense nor of an intensity so held in control.” In a 2002 issue of The Week magazine the critic James Atlas calls Frank Conroy’s “Stop-Time” the “best book ever written on what it’s like to be a boy growing up in postwar America.” For a regular feature in Antaeus Quarterly dubbed “Neglected Books of the 20th Century,” Laurie Colwin — author of the wonderful “Happy All the Time” — selects “The Liar,” by Thomas Savage, a writer currently being rediscovered because of one of his other novels, “The Power of the Dog.”
And next I find … that I’ve run out of space here, having scarcely begun to work my way through these yellowing pages of bookish enthusiasm. Let me end, though, with a 1997 Spectator magazine survey in which English biographer Sheridan Morley names “Personal History,” by The Post’s longtime publisher Katharine Graham, as “the memoir of the year.” It “tells us who really … runs Washington, which is in fact the author.” Would that this were still so!
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
Essay on book lists
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