David Myers and others have indulged in a literary parlor game, a variation on the Desert Island Conundrum – 15 in 15, for short -- and I accept Myers’ stipulation, your honor: “Name the fifteen books that have most influenced your thinking, that you have found yourself referring to most often in reflection, speech, and writing.” This makes it more interesting than so pallid a criterion as “favorite” or “best”:
Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Whitney Balliett, American Musicians
A.J. Liebling, Normandy Revisited
Joseph Mitchell, The Bottom of the Harbor
Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children
Henry David Thoreau, Journal
Zbigniew Herbert, The Collected Poems: 1956-1998
Anton Chekhov, The Tales
James Boswell, Life of Johnson
Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets
William Shakespeare, Plays
John Berryman, The Dream Songs
Edgar Bowers, Collected Poems
I debated none of the books on the list. They appear in the order in which they came to mind, a process that took, including the writing and copy editing, less than seven minutes. Each title sits within three paces of where I sit, some on my desk. After the 15th book, of course, I began regretting omissions: No Joyce or Beckett? No Gibbon, Keats, Dickinson, Henry James or Geoffrey Hill? No Hopkins, Eliot, Bellow, Proust, Nabokov, Spinoza or J.V. Cunningham? What of The Anatomy of Melancholy and Religio Medici? I soothe myself with this thought: Imagine the plight of a person unable even to name 15 books.
If such a list constitutes a Rorschach test, what have I learned? It surprises me that three titles qualify as biography (Balliett, Boswell, Johnson), and only two as fiction (Stead, Chekhov). Four are poetry, five if you count Shakespeare (I do). I didn’t expect so many Americans (eight) and so few English (three). The rest are Russian, Polish, Australian and French. Three titles (Balliett, Liebling, Mitchell) represent higher journalism, all published in The New Yorker. No title embarrasses me by its inclusion, and all have an influence on the way I read, write and think, however attenuated the connection.
Had I drawn up a similar list 20 years ago, two things would have been different. More fiction would have shown up and fewer “non-literary” titles – that is, The New Yorker crowd. My notion of the “literary” has grown more elastic while my fondness for dependably rereadable books remains as strong as ever. I seldom read a book I’m unlikely to read again.