You’re done with all that. You head for the hills. What books do you bring? | Culture & Leisure


Finally, it’s too much. You decide to throw away the modern world and retire to a cabin in the woods. No computer. No telephone. Instead, you stock up on a bookshelf with a small comfort reading library for those long evenings ahead. What will you take?

While I would like copies of the Bible, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare and Proust – the headlines of Western literature – I am too sybarite to limit myself to the classics. Instead, I would opt for books that, through their prose, ideas, or storytelling, trigger in me a deep sense of contentment and well-being. Powerful and disturbing works are not eligible.

Since my beta picklist was over 100 titles, the following is limited to 20th-century prose by English-language authors, one book each. I may cover poetry and older literature another time. Needless to say, my final list is unapologetically personal and unofficial – no other guy is worth anything. So here are some of my favorite books, in no particular order, each described with telegraphic conciseness.

• “Literary Life”, by Robert Phelps and Peter Deane. A Navigator’s Paradise: A Year-by-Year Scrapbook of Twentieth-Century Anglo-American Literature.

• “The Art of Eating”, by MFK Fisher. Celebrate the sensual.

• “On the Shoulders of Giants”, by Robert K. Merton. A light “Shandean” history of the slogan of dwarfs perched on giants.

• “Men prefer blondes”, by Anita Loos. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

• “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”, by John Berendt. Savannah, scandalous events – and murder.

• “Jorkens remembers Africa”, by Lord Dunsany. The “history of the club” à la Munchausen at its most witty and melancholy.

• “Notes from a Fan”, by Frederick Exley. The desperation of all America, scrutinized with irony.

• “Adventures in Non-History”, by Avram Davidson. Irresistible meanders through ancient legends.

• “The Man Who Was Thursday,” by GK Chesterton. Anarchist plots, wacky twists and spiritual mysteries.

• “A Day with Wilbur Robinson”, by William Joyce. A play date like no other.

• “Lolita”, by Vladimir Nabokov. The seductions of a fanciful prose style.

• “The Best of Myles”, by Flann O’Brien. Ireland’s most surreal newspaper columnist.

• “VR Lang: A Memoir”, by Alison Lurie. Remembering the 1950s muse in Cambridge, Mass.

• “The New Apocrypha”, by John Sladek. Slyly gutted pseudoscience.

• “Anatomy of Criticism”, by Northrop Frye. How stories and poems work.

• “Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould”, by Kevin Bazzana. A worthy biography of classical music’s most idiosyncratic pianist.

• “The Three Coffins”, by John Dickson Carr. My favorite closed room mystery.

• “The Reckoning”, by Charles Nicholl. Spy versus spy and the death of Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe.

• “Seven men and two others”, by Max Beerbohm. Don’t miss decadent arch Enoch Soames and fortune-teller AV Laider.

• “Lost Objects”, by Ben Sonnenberg. Confessions of a bad boy turned magazine editor.

• “Lud-in-the-Mist”, by Hope Mirrlees. A fairy tale for middle-aged people.

• “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. Melancholic profiles of the eccentric inhabitants of a New York that has now disappeared.

• “Thurber’s 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. Captivating from all points of view.

• “Fantasias and Good Nights,” by John Collier. Devil’s Treats and Other Diabolical 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. The first 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 from the Dying Earth”, by Jack Vance. Witchcraft and a silver-tongued rascal named Cugel.

• “Journal of Paris: 1944-1965”, by Janet Flanner. Chronicle of 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. Disturbing images, sinister captions – both endlessly enticing.

• “A Taxi at the Door,” by VS Pritchett. A short story master resurrects his chaotic Edwardian childhood.

• “Arabian Sands”, by Wilfred Thesiger. Adventure in the desert, elegiac abseil.

• “Hav’s Last Letters”, by Jan Morris. Explore a dream city.

• “The mouse and her child”, by Russell Hoban. If Samuel Beckett wrote a children’s book.

• “Performing Flea”, by PG Wodehouse. The creator of Jeeves and Wooster talks shop.

• “The Lives of Shakespeare”, by S. Schoenbaum. Four centuries of biographical facts and fantasy.

• “Augustus Carp, Esq. by HH Bashford. Religious hypocrisy unmasked—a comic triumph.

• “Captain Blood”, by Rafael Sabatini. The unrivaled nautical swordsman.

• “Alan Mendelsohn: the boy from Mars”, by Daniel Pinkwater. Two misfits and the Klugarsh mind control system.

• “The True Story of the First Mrs. Meredith,” by Diane Johnson. Biography made jazzy, feminist and scathing.

• “Collected Ghost Stories”, by MR James. Includes ‘Casting the Runes’ and ‘Count Magnus’.

• “The George Lyttelton-Rupert Hart-Davis Letters”, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis. The most entertaining book correspondence of post-war England.

• “In Patagonia”, by Bruce Chatwin. Lapidary sentences, stunning paragraphs.

• “The Worried Grave”, by Cyril Connolly. A quote-rich journey through a dark night of the soul.

• “Nights at the Circus”, by Angela Carter. Cockney’s magical realism takes flight.

• “The Wind in the Willows”, by Kenneth Grahame. The cozy universe of The Riverbank.

• “A Childhood”, by Harry Crews. The true mountain elegy.

• “AJA Symons: his life and his speculations”, by Julian Symons. Portrait of a flamboyant writer, book collector and oenophile.

• “The geography of the imaginary: forty essays”, by Guy Davenport. Encyclopedic Enchantments.

• “Cold Comfort Farm”, by Stella Gibbons. Something nasty in the pyre!

• “Imaginative qualities of real things”, by Gilbert Sorrentino. Wildly satirical vignettes of 60s New York art.

• “Tellers of Tales”, by Roger Lancelyn Green. An exciting guide to British children’s literature.

• “The Moving Toy Store”, by Edmund Crispin. Crazy farce and detection in the Oxford mirror.

• “Hindoo Holiday”, by JR Ackerley. A bewildered Englishman in a bewildering India.

• “United States”, by Gore Vidal. Trials of our most courteous gadfly.

• “The box of delights”, by John Masefield. A classic of winter fantasy.

• “Little big man”, by Thomas Berger. The Wild West demystified.

• “The Book of the New Sun”, by Gene Wolfe. The four-part sci-fi novel that rules them all.


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