By Steve Donoghue
Just the other day, the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik published a short list of six books he thought “literature lovers” should read, and of course I not only read the list but also smiled a bit when a dozen people sent me links to it, wondering if I wanted to comment on it, wondering if I agreed with it, and, every single time, asking me for a similar list of my own.
These kinds of lists are addictive, of course, because they come out of the blue and therefore feel just a bit more inspired than something planned and thematic would. Certainly Gopnik’s seems keyed to feel rather pointedly random. It started with Boswell’s gigantic life of Samuel Johnson, which Gopnik celebrates for its “prescient, informal, racy prose,” then swerves to “The Most of Liebling,” an A.J. Leibling anthology from 1963, celebrating “the best reporter on Paris, boxing, and war, with the widest range of knowledge and the slyest gift for horizontal allusion,” whatever the heck that means. Despite sporadic reprints over the years, I was under the impression that Liebling’s reputation was dying, and yet here’s Gopnik recommending him like he was the freshest avocado on the cart.
Gopnik’s next recommendation felt decidedly more dated: the early short stories of John Updike, which Gopnik describes as “miracles of observation, evocation, and poignant emotion” (“He sings,” he writes, apparently without irony, “and we harmonize”). This is pure sheep dip, obviously – Updike’s fiction was audibly creaking with obsolescence and ham-handed faux-profundity even while he was first churning it out, and time has done it no favors, showing it more and more for the bald and maudlin claptrap it’s always been.
More intriguing is Gopnik’s addition of “Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenter and Seymour: An Introduction” by J. D. Salinger, which appeared four years after Salinger’s world-famous 1951 book “A Catcher in the Rye,” which would have been the more obvious pick. Here Gopnik doesn’t so much praise “Raise High the Roof Beams” itself as he praises more generally Salinger as an author, who he describes as “still the most soulful comic writer we’ve ever had, and simultaneously the greatest comic writer of the search for soulfulness.” He turns from an unexpected choice to a very, very expected choice: “Swann’s Way,” the opening to Marcel Proust’s gigantic “In Search of Lost Time.” Gopnik himself calls this “a terribly conventional pick,” which is true, and calls the sections on this book “the most beautiful thing in writing,” which is, to put it mildly, open to debate.
Far more open to debate – wonderfully so – is Gopnik’s final pick, “Voltaire in Love” by Nancy Mitford, her opinionated, marvelously readable 1957 book about the nature and time period of one of the most interesting humans who’s ever lived. Mitford’s book was a paying brief rather than a labor of love, and it’s certainly no work of scholarship, as Gopnik notes (“Mitford is disapproved of by sterner academics,” he puts it), but it’s incredibly lively as a reading experience, although I wouldn’t have expected it on this kind of list.
But I guess the unpredictability was part of the point, and I’m fine with that – and I want to join in the fun! Here are six random recommendations for the bookish person:
The Franco-Prussian War by Michael Howard (1961) – The historian’s eloquent, knowing masterpiece about German Chancellor Bismarck’s 1870 lightning war against France is still the standard work on the subject, icey and brilliant even half a century later.
Branwell by Douglas Martin (2005) – This slim novel tells the story of the lost Brontë sibling, poor doomed Branwell, only here with an elegantly nuanced gay shading, where the scandal that sent Branwell on his downward spiral wasn’t an ill-concealed affair with his employer’s wife but rather with the young boy he was supposed to be tutoring.
The Vision of Stephen by Lolah Burford (1979) – Maybe the least-known item on my own list, this slim proto-YA novel tells the story of a tortured Anglo-Saxon prince named Stephen basically wishes himself into the reality of two brothers in a later era, where he’s free to reflect on his life and times. It’s a touching and strange tale, now thoroughly forgotten.
Among the Bone Eaters: Encounters with Hyenas in Harar by Marcus Baynes-Rock (2015) – Talk about strange! This book is a love-letter to the hyenas that are allowed to roam the streets of Harar in Ethiopia – a love-letter written by Baynes-Rock, who studies these creatures at hands-on proximity.
Shark Attack by H. David Baldridge (1978) – Speaking of hands-on proximity, there’s this battered old classic compendium of shark attacks. Baldridge is no Shakespeare, but then he knows he doesn’t need to be – his book is pure dirty adrenaline, riding the wave of shark-terror kicked off three years earlier by Steven Spielberg’s movie “Jaws.”
And since Gopnik worked a very obvious item onto his list, I’ll finish with one of my own: “The Last of the Mohicans,” James Fenimore Cooper’s once-popular 1826 adventure of his omni-competent hero Natty Bumppo. Cooper’s diction varies wildly between Sir Walter Scott and a cod-dramatic version of the King James Bible, but once you get used to that – if anybody bothers to anymore – you get one heck of an adventure story.