Friday, May 04, 2018

`Stocked with Perennial Favorites'

Call me superficial but I’m a sucker for lists of favorite books. Both kinds – the heartfelt and the phony. Even in our era books carry a certain cultural cachet, whether or not they are actually read. Celebrities asked to name the books they value most inevitably mix the tony with the trashy. The results can be entertaining. Before he was elected president, Donald Trump included both Machiavelli’s The Prince and Kim Kiyosaki’s Rich Woman: A Book on Investing for Women (I had never heard of it either) among his favorites. His former rival, Hillary Clinton, played it safe, naming seven books by women and one by a Roman Catholic priest. The last, she tells us, contains “universal, timeless lessons.” JFK’s list was heavy on history and biography but made room for Stendhal and James Bond. Keith Richards recommends Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels and Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present.

There’s no way to gauge the sincerity of such lists, of course, and perhaps we should be grateful people still feel that parading their bookish leanings makes them look good. In contrast, consider the reading preferences of Philip Terzian, who was literary editor at The Weekly Standard from 2005 to 2017. In a National Review interview, Terzian is asked: “If — in a gross miscarriage of justice, obviously — you were sentenced to a long term in a penal colony, which four books would you take with you?” He responds:

“For the purposes of answering an impossible question, I’ll stick to imaginative literature: Piers Plowman, by William Langland; Seven Men, by Max Beerbohm; Murder in the Cathedral, by T. S. Eliot; and Babylon Revisited and Other Stories, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

All sensible choices, with the added virtue of being unexpected. The only title even dimly in contention for my list would be the Beerbohm, though I admire the variety – evidence of broad reading. The impression is strengthened by Terzian’s supplemental list:

“As you might have guessed, I have a small bookcase at the foot of my bed stocked with perennial favorites — Ben Jonson, Faulkner, Dr. Johnson, medieval miracle plays, the Alanbrooke diaries, Our Times, by Mark Sullivan. But new books currently on my nightstand are John Bew’s life of Clement Attlee; On Human Nature, by the newly knighted Roger Scruton; and Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music, by Jan Swafford.”

Terzian himself wrote a good book: Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century (Encounter Books, 2010). In another interview, Terzian is asked what he would tell a young person who wishes to become a “professional prose writer.” He says:

“To read British and American literature, and the great historians and poets and essayists, especially the voices that still speak clearly and powerfully across time. Samuel Johnson is as vivid today – at least to me – as he was two centuries ago. You have to decide, at some point, whether writing is a vocation or an avocation, and understand that the point is not necessarily income or notoriety but the satisfaction of craftsmanship.”

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