Last week my friend Nick DiGiovanni called on various people to e-mail lists of their favorite books. My own list runs at the end of this post, which is the first installment of my series of explanations for why these books are the ones I love best in the world.
THE ASCENT OF MAN/Jacob Bronowski
Bronowski was more than a science writer — he was a philosopher, and his deeply humane, endlessly questing view of life has had (I like to think) more influence on my worldview than any other philosopher. This book and its accompanying miniseries (available on DVD through Ambrose Video) are a fine introduction to Bronowski’s wit and deep-seated decency. From here, I would recommend Science and Human Values as the next step.
THE CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY/ Boethius
In his work and his life, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was a bridge between pagan Rome and its Christianized successor. Though the empire has been Christianized for about a century before his birth, Boethius harkened back to Plato and Aristotle, whose works he was still translating into Latin when his life was cut short. Though he was a formidable scholar and quite possibly the single most learned man in the Empire, Boethius took public service as a calling, and he threw himself into politics with great vigor — too much, it seems, since he found himself on the wrong side of a controversy and was sentenced to death in 524 CE by the Ostrogothic king Theoderic. Awaiting his fate in prison, Boethius produced this gorgeous, paradoxical meditation on the workings of fate and justice — a Christian work that avoids mentioning Christ and instead uses the workings of logic to support its arguments. I have yet to encounter a work of theology that has its intended impact on me, but I found (and find) Boethius’ view of evil as an absence rather than a generative force in its own right to be very powerful and clarifying. When I was covering crime and courts during my newspaper days, I sat in one a number of horrifying murder trials, and in every case the accused murderers did not show Satanic cunning along the lines of Hannibal Lecter, but rather damage begun by others in childhood and continued in later life, as though the victims wanted to justify and complete the terrible things that had been done to them. Their evil deeds had been formed by emptiness, an emptiness Boethius had seen and described even as it came to claim his life.
THE PASTURES OF HEAVEN/John Steinbeck
Not one of the officially approved Great Steinbeck Novels, but the one in which the California master found his voice after flailing around with Cup of Gold and To A God Unknown. It’s not even really a novel — more a collection of linked short stories set in the ironically named valley where Bert Monroe brings his family, hoping to break a lifelong streak of bad luck. As we see in each finely crafted story, Monroe doesn’t so much break his bad luck as spread it around, with consequences that range from benign and ironic to enraging and tragic.
CANNERY ROW/John Steinbeck
Steinbeck called this slim, effortlessly readable book a poisoned cream puff, and it takes a few readings to see what he meant: while many people are content to view the book as nothing more than a collection of vignettes about loveable rogues and scamps in a rough section of Monterey, there’s a great deal of toughness and flint-eyed observation at work here. There’s also a lovingly drawn portrait of Doc, a marine biologist closely modeled on Steinbeck’s close friend Ed Ricketts, who serves as the axis around which the novel’s events turn. At its simplest, the novel is a study of the difference betweena good party and a bad party. At its most complex, it presents a human community as intricate and fragile (and as beautiful and stunningly violent) as the tidal pool habitats where Doc searches for his specimens. It also has some 0f most glowingly beautiful passages Steinbeck ever wrote. The burghers of Monterey never forgave Steinbeck for this or Tortilla Flat, which chronicled the paisanos living in the hills above the town — they damned the books as celebrations of lowlifes, and they all but ran Steinbeck out of town on a rail when he tried to return with his second wife. Their descendants, of course, have since turned the Steinbeck connection into a small tourist industry. Cannery Row no longer exists in Monterey, but it will always exist in this book.
FOR THE UNION DEAD/Robert Lowell
The title poem is Lowell’s tribute to “The Fighting Fifty-Fourth,” the black infantry unit that tried to storm Fort Wagner during the Civil War, and it remains my favorite poem decades after my first reading. The other poems are nothing to sneeze at, either.
THE HAWK IN THE RAIN/Ted Hughes
My second favorite poem of all time, “The Thought-Fox,” uses vivid imagery drawn from nature to convey the mystery of literary creation. It is one of the standouts in the first collection published by one of the towering figures of twentieth-century verse.
THE OCTOBER COUNTRY/ Ray Bradbury
Bradbury at his most concise, most evocative and — quite often — most frightening. Most of the stories are rewritten versions of tales from his first book, Dark Carnival (published by Arkham House, and now a collector’s item commanding prices in the thousands of dollars), but the after-the-fact polishing has done nothing to diminish the menace of “The Man Upstairs,” “The Next in Line” or “The Small Assassin.” The emphasis on the macabre gives this collection a unity lacking in, say, The Illustrated Man or The Golden Apples of the Sun, to say nothing of additional kick. With later Bradbury, the richly flavored style tends to overwhelm the finished product; here is where you’ll find him at his most accessible and compelling.
SLOUCHING TOWARD BETHLEHEM/Joan Didion
This book and George Orwell’s A Collection of Essays belong in the working library of anyone writing nonfiction. Like a great many Californians in the 1960s, Didion saw California in general (and Los Angeles in particular) as a tainted paradise overdue for some kind of annihilating judgment, and in the long title essay she tried to figure out the nature and the extent of the deserved punishment. It’s true that Didion sometimes mistakes her moods and fixations for reports from the Zeitgeist, but I love her gift for winding sharp judgments and observations into long, elaborately crafted sentences that lead the reader in unexpected directions. I also like her flinty streak: it makes “On Self Respect” a bracing read
Like Joan Didion, Vidal gets more attention for his bitingly witty and combative essays than his novels; unlike Joan Didion, Vidal has produced novels that are worth reading in their own right, and this is the best of them. The story of Julian, the Byzantine-era Roman emperor who tried to hold back the Christianization of the empire that began under Constantine, allows Vidal to display his formidable research skills while slashing away at contemporary pieties. The fact that Julian’s own attacks on the developing Christian church remain powerful to this day are part of the fun, and the ending turns out to be deeply moving — surprisingly so for a writer whose work tends to be a bit chilly.
PATRIOTIC GORE/Edmund Wilson
All of Wilson’s strengths as a critic, essayist and historian are on display in this survey of the literature of the Civil War. He’s generous almost to a fault with Harriett Beecher Stowe, amusingly dismissive of Carl Sandburg’s attempts to embalm Abraham Lincoln in folksy pickle juice, sharp-eyed and to the point with Mary Chestnut, William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant. (Or is that Mark Twain?)
XICCARPH/Clark Ashton Smith
Smith was a young California poet, briefly part of Ambrose Bierce’s literary circle, who survived the Depression by writing baroquely imaginative fantasy and science fiction stories for the pulp magazines, notably Weird Tales, where he became the third part of the unlikely trimuvirate formed by H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Smith was the finest writer of the group: a stylist whose interests lay not in narrative (his plots ranged from rudimentary to nonexistent) but in evoking strange moods and environments. Smith wrote only poems and short stories, which have been republished in various configurations. This particular book is one of four issued by Ballantine Books in the early 1970s under its Adult Fantasy imprint, which was one of the touchstones of my youth. For a long span of my adolescence, simply looking at this paperback with its exotic cover painting (by Gervasio Gallardo, a mainstay of the series) was enough to transport me to strange and beautiful places.
THE DYING EARTH/Jack Vance
Sorry, lit-snobs, but an appreciation for imaginative writing is a necessary part of any reading diet, and with the death of Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance inherited the title of great underappreciated American fantasy writer. Like Leiber and his stylistic precursor Clark Ashton Smith, Vance is an underappreciated American master overdue for discovery by the wider world; unlike them, he has achieved a measure of recognition and finanical success as a science fiction grandmaster. These stories are set on an Earth lost in perpetual twilight under a fading sun, where learning has become a blend of magic and science, and the shadowy forests teem with bizarre monsters — many of which use the same elegantly epigrammatic speech used by the human characters. Vance’s trick of evoking the far future by using antique and obsolete words like “deodand” was a big influence on Gene Wolfe, whose Book of the New Sun cycle is partly a tribute to Vance’s Dying Earth. “Real fantasy” may seem like a contradiction in terms, but at a time when bookstores are loaded with dreary fifth-generation imitators of J.R.R. Tolkien, this book is the real stuff.
THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD/Jack Vance
The Dying Earth again, but this time our guide is a picaro named Cugel the Clever, a thief and vagabond whose attempt to burglarize a magician’s residence earns him a very long journey through a world of wonders and dangers. Each chapter is a fireworks display of imagination in which Cugel, who is not nearly as clever as he thinks, enters a situation and becomes an unwitting agent of moral redress, bringing unintended punishment on malefactors as well as unanticipated rewards to the virtuous — or, more often, the merely harmless. Imagine a world in which the grotesquerie of Aubrey Beardsley and Hieronymous Bosch are wedded to the elegant dialogue of a Restoration comedy and you’ll get an idea of the peculiar, heady flavor of Vance’s work.
To be continued.
THE MASTER LIST
Julian: Gore Vidal,
The Ascent of Man: Jacob Bronowski
The Consolation of Philosophy: Boethius
The Pastures of Heaven: John Steinbeck
Cannery Row: John Steinbeck
For the Union Dead: Robert Lowell
The October Country: Ray Bradbury
U.S.A.: John Dos Passos
Tales of Soldiers and Civilians: Ambrose Bierce
Slouching Toward Bethlehem: Joan Didion
The Dying Earth: Jack Vance
The Eyes of the Overworld: Jack Vance
History of My Life: Giacomo Casanova
Patriotic Gore: Edmund Wilson
A Canticle for Leibowitz: Walter Miller Jr.
The Hawk in the Rain: Ted Hughes
Xiccarph: Clark Ashton Smith
The Nehwon Books: Fritz Leiber
Life of Johnson: James Boswell
Lonesome Dove: Larry McMurtry
A Heart at Fire’s Center: Steven C. Smith
Behind the Shades Revisited: Clinton Heylin
The Power Broker: Robert Caro
Up In the Old Hotel: Joseph Mitchell
The Titus Novels: Mervyn Peake
Flash for Freedom! George Macdonald Fraser
Flashman and the Redskins: George Macdonald Fraser
A House for Mr. Biswas: V.S. Naipaul
Laxdaela Saga: Unknown
Egil’s Saga: Snorri Sturluson
This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm
The Children of Llyr: Evangeline Walton
In Patagonia: Bruce Chatwin
Against the American Grain: Dwight Macdonald
Prejudices: H.L. Mencken