Finally, it’s all just too much. You decide to chuck the modern world and retreat to a cabin in the woods. No computer. No cellphone. Instead you stock a bookcase with a small library of comfort reading for the long evenings ahead. What will you take?
Because my beta shortlist ran to more than a hundred titles, what follows limits itself to 20th-century prose by English-language authors, one book apiece. Perhaps I’ll cover poetry and older literature another time. Needless to say, my final list is unapologetically personal and unofficial — no other kind is worth anything. Here, then, are 66 of my favorite books, in no particular order, each described with telegraphic succinctness.
“The Literary Life,” by Robert Phelps and Peter Deane. A browser’s paradise: A year-by-year scrapbook of 20th-century Anglo-American literature.
“The Art of Eating,” by M.F.K. Fisher. Celebrating the sensual.
“On the Shoulders of Giants,” by Robert K. Merton. A lighthearted “Shandean” history of the dwarfs-perched-on-giants catchphrase.
“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” by Anita Loos. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.
“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” by John Berendt. Savannah, outrageous goings-on — and murder.
“Jorkens Remembers Africa,” by Lord Dunsany. The Munchausen-like “club story” at its most witty and wistful.
“A Fan’s Notes,” by Frederick Exley. All-American despair, wryly scrutinized.
“Adventures in Unhistory,” by Avram Davidson. Irresistible meanderings through ancient legends.
“The Man Who Was Thursday,” by G.K. Chesterton. Anarchist plots, zany reversals and spiritual mysteries.
“A Day with Wilbur Robinson,” by William Joyce. A playdate like no other.
“Lolita,” by Vladimir Nabokov. The seductions of a fancy prose style.
“The Best of Myles,” by Flann O’Brien. Ireland’s most surreally comic newspaper columnist.
“V.R. Lang: A Memoir,” by Alison Lurie. Remembering the muse of 1950s Cambridge, Mass.
“The New Apocrypha,” by John Sladek. Pseudoscience slyly eviscerated.
“Anatomy of Criticism,” by Northrop Frye. How stories and poems work.
“Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould,” by Kevin Bazzana. A biography worthy of classical music’s most idiosyncratic pianist.
“The Three Coffins,” by John Dickson Carr. My favorite locked-room mystery.
“The Reckoning,” by Charles Nicholl. Spy vs. spy and the death of Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe.
“Seven Men and Two Others,” by Max Beerbohm. Don’t miss the arch-decadent Enoch Soames and the fortunetelling A.V. Laider.
“Lost Property,” by Ben Sonnenberg. Confessions of a bad boy turned great magazine editor.
“Lud-in-the-Mist,” by Hope Mirrlees. A fairy tale for the middle-aged.
“Kipling, Auden & Co.,” by Randall Jarrell. Criticism at its wittiest, cruelest and most insightful.
“Kim,” by Rudyard Kipling. As good as “Huckleberry Finn.”
“Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship,” by Robert Craft. Boswellian vignettes of the maestro and his artistic contemporaries.
“The Complete Ronald Firbank,” by Ronald Firbank. The campiest of camp novelists.
“Up in the Old Hotel,” by Joseph Mitchell. Melancholy profiles of the eccentric denizens of a now-vanished New York.
“The Thurber Carnival,” by James Thurber. Includes “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “My Life and Hard Times.”
“The Private World of Georgette Heyer, ” by Jane Aiken Hodge. Beguiling in every way.
“Fancies and Goodnights,” by John Collier. Deals with the Devil and other fiendish delights.
“Uncle Scrooge McDuck: His Life and Times,” by Carl Barks. Watch out for the Beagle Boys!
“Writers at Work: Second Series,” edited by Malcolm Cowley. Early Paris Review interviews, even better than volume one.
“Mrs. Bridge,” by Evan S. Connell. Is being a wife and mother all there is?
“The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh,” edited by Donat Gallagher. Journalism from the best modern practitioner of classic English prose.
“Tales of the Dying Earth,” by Jack Vance. Wizardry and a silver-tongued rascal named Cugel.
“Paris Journal: 1944-1965,” by Janet Flanner. Chronicling French culture, politics and scandal.
“Small World,” by David Lodge. The funniest of all academic comedies.
“The Mysteries of Harris Burdick,” by Chris Van Allsburg. Unsettling images, sinister captions — both endlessly tantalizing.
“A Cab at the Door,” by V.S. Pritchett. A short-story master resurrects his rackety Edwardian childhood.
“Arabian Sands,” by Wilfred Thesiger. Desert adventure, elegiacally recalled.
“Last Letters from Hav,” by Jan Morris. Roaming a city of dreams.
“The Mouse and His Child,” by Russell Hoban. If Samuel Beckett wrote a children’s book.
“Performing Flea,” by P.G. Wodehouse. The creator of Jeeves and Wooster talks shop.
“Shakespeare’s Lives,” by S. Schoenbaum. Four centuries of biographical fact and fantasy.
“Augustus Carp, Esq.,” by H.H. Bashford. Religious hypocrisy unmasked — a comic triumph.
“Captain Blood,” by Rafael Sabatini. The unrivaled nautical swashbuckler.
“Alan Mendelsohn: The Boy from Mars,” by Daniel Pinkwater. Two misfits and the Klugarsh Mind-Control System.
“The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith,” by Diane Johnson. Biography made jazzy, feminist and scathing.
“Collected Ghost Stories,” by M.R. James. Includes “Casting the Runes” and “Count Magnus.”
“The George Lyttelton-Rupert Hart-Davis Letters,” edited by Rupert Hart-Davis. Postwar England’s most entertainingly bookish correspondence.
“In Patagonia,” by Bruce Chatwin. Lapidary sentences, stunning paragraphs.
“The Unquiet Grave,” by Cyril Connolly. A quotation-rich journey through a dark night of the soul.
“Nights at the Circus,” by Angela Carter. Cockney magic realism takes flight.
“The Wind in the Willows,” by Kenneth Grahame. The Riverbank’s cozy world.
“A Childhood,” by Harry Crews. The true hillbilly elegy.
“A.J.A. Symons: His Life and Speculations,” by Julian Symons. Portrait of a flamboyant writer, book collector and oenophile.
“The Geography of the Imagination: Forty Essays,” by Guy Davenport. Encyclopedic enchantments.
“Cold Comfort Farm,” by Stella Gibbons. Something nasty in the woodshed!
“Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things,” by Gilbert Sorrentino. Savagely satirical vignettes of artsy New York in the ’60s.
“Tellers of Tales,” by Roger Lancelyn Green. Enthralling guide to British children’s literature.
“The Moving Toyshop,” by Edmund Crispin. Madcap farce plus detection in looking-glass Oxford.
“Hindoo Holiday,” by J.R. Ackerley. A bewildered Englishman in bewildering India.
“United States,” by Gore Vidal. Essays by our most urbane gadfly.
“The Box of Delights,” by John Masefield. A wintry fantasy classic.
“Little Big Man,” by Thomas Berger. The Old West, demythologized.
“The Book of the New Sun,” by Gene Wolfe. The four-part science fiction novel that rules them all.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
Michael Dirda’s Desert-Island Books
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