Thursday, January 13, 2022

'Unapologetically Personal and Unofficial'

Michael Dirda indulges a Robinson Crusoe fantasy and salvages “books that through their prose, ideas or storytelling, trigger in me a deep sense of contentment and well-being.” These are the sixty-six books he would take to a desert island along with “the biggies of western literature” and, presumably, matches and Halazone tablets. 

I respect Dirda and once interviewed him for a story I was writing about the novelist William Kennedy, though the eclecticism of his taste in books is beyond my understanding. As a book columnist for a daily newspaper he can’t afford to be too exclusive in his preferences, of course, but he genuinely seems to love work in the sub-literary genres of science fiction and ghost stories. I’m not here to argue with him. Life is short and filled with loss, and pleasures are fleeting, so I can’t begrudge him his sources of literary “contentment and well-being.”


On Dirda’s list are several books I love – Lolita, The Geography of the Imagination, Kim, Little Big Man – and many I’ve enjoyed: the Lyttelton/Hart-Davis letters, Beerbohm’s stories, Wodehouse and Pritchett, Waugh and Joseph Mitchell, Kevin Bazzana’s biography of Glenn Gould. Dirda limits his list to “20th-century prose by English-language authors, one book apiece.” With that stipulation in mind, I would nominate a few more titles, all solace-giving, in no particular order:


Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1959), A.J. Liebling

The Parker novels (1962-2008), Richard Stark (Donald Westlake)

Witness (1952), Whittaker Chambers

The Collected Essays of J.V. Cunningham (1978)

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), Rebecca West

American Musicians II: Seventy-one Portraits in Jazz (1996), Whitney Balliett

The Brooklyn Novels (1934, 1936, 1937), Daniel Fuchs

Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives (1989), Joseph Epstein

Enthusiasm (1950), Ronald Knox

Cultural Amnesia (2007), Clive James


As Dirda puts it: “Needless to say, my final list is unapologetically personal and unofficial — no other kind is worth anything.”


Faze said...

I always read and give consideration to lists like these from writers I respect. I intend to check out "Enthusiasm" by Ronald Knox. I enjoyed his mystery stories in old anthologies long before I learned he was a priest, etc.

Thomas Parker said...

The Parker novels?! You surprise me by including such genre trash. But it's a good surprise - I think the books are superb. My favorite moment from any of them is when Parker points a gun at a mob emissary, an actuarial, non-muscle type. "I'm the messenger!" bleats the guy, to which Parker replies, "Now you're the message," before shooting him in the head.