Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Some of My Favorite Books

My friend Megan on Twitter asked me today to name my favorite book, a book I could reread over and over without it getting old. Because I never could follow instructions, my response is below. Many of these meet Megan's rereading test: others I simply found to be amazing. I've been worrying lately because I seem to have fallen out of the habit of reading books -- maybe compiling this list will help get me restarted. I want to reread a lot of them!

You'll note that the list is heavy on essays and other nonfiction. I've read a lot of fiction, but almost all of it has been detective fiction (mysteries). To some extent, the diversity of subjects in the nonfiction reflects my varying interests, but mostly reflects that I'm more concerned with how well a book is written than what the subject is.

Nonfiction and Essays

From Bauhaus to Our House - Tom Wolfe. A book about the surrender of 20th century American architecture to politically-driven European architects arriving in the US before World War II. It's an astonishing polemic: despite a subject that sounds like a total yawner, it's an astonishing exercise in the use of language as a blunt instrument. Pointed and sarcastic. Completely changed my view of what good writing can be. By the same auther: The Painted Word.
Lives of a Cell - Lewis Thomas. A series of lively essays about biology, life, and language by a physician and research scientist. Wonderful. By the same author: The Youngest Science, a personal history of modern medicine.
White Album - Joan Didion. Didion is one of the best-regarded prose writers of our time. This collection of essays focuses on the turbulent years in the late 1960s.
A Year in Provence - Peter Mayle. Very funny first person account of an English family that buys a house in the South of France. Wonderful stories, wonderful characters, wonderful food. Contains some of my favoite lines ever.
Dave Barry is Not Taking This Sitting Down - Dave Barry. A collection of very good short pieces by a very humorist at his best.
Life Work - Donald Hall. Hall is primarily known as a poet, and this book-length essay, about the role of work in our lives, shows it in the elegance of language. Hall's signature in my copy of this book is the only author's autograph I've ever sought: I did it partly just to say 'thank you'.
Simple Cooking - John Thorn. My all-time favorite book about cooking. I haven't reread it in a while, but it's at my elbow right now.
Sayonara, Michaelangelo: The Sistine Chapel Restored and Repackaged - Waldemar Januszczak. This short book blew me away. It's about the restoration Michaelangelo's paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and the financing of that restoration by a Japenese television network, but it's also about Japanese society, the history of Christianity in Japan, the nature of artistic genius, and a lot of other things. Very influential in my opinions about the arts.
Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made -- David Halberstam. Yes, it's about basketball, but it's about so much more. You'll learn a lot, whether you care about sports or not.
A Roomful of Hovings -- John McPhee. My goodness, McPhee's a great writer. This collection of profiles from the New Yorker features an essay (the title piece) about a man who was director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City which you should read if you're interested in art -at all-.
Tummy Trilogy - Calvin Trillin. This collection of very funny pieces originally published as three books chronicle Trillin's efforts to find something decent to eat as a traveling man.
Soul of a New Machine - Tracy Kidder. A fascinating look at a small company in the early years of the computer industry as they develop a new model of computer. The subject gives no clue as to how interesting it is.

Detective Fiction
Busman's Honeymoon - Dorothy Sayers. Subtitled "A Love Story with Detective Interruptions", this is sort of a romance and sort of a mystery. Features the character Lord Peter Wimsey. Often funny, often moving.
Aunt Dimity's Death - Nancy Atherton. It's a detective story without bodies and a ghost story that isn't spooky. Warm and fun.
Anulet of Gilt - Phoebe Atwood Taylor. Taylor's not widely read anymore, but this is one of her books set in Cape Cod and featuring 'hayseed sleuth' Asey Mayo. The first few books are rather dark, but most of them (including this one) are quite funny. Taylor's books have a wonderful sense of time and place. This one features the line "I'm just the man people give elephants to." I actually contributed to the Wikipedia article on Taylor.
Light Thickens - Ngaio Marsh. Perhaps my favorite detective is Marsh's Roderick Alleyn. This book, Marsh's last, takes place against the backdrop of a production of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Entertaining and atmospheric.
The Luck Runs Out - Charlotte Macleod. I like a lot of this woman's books. Many, including this one, are quite funny.
Glimpses of the Moon - Edmund Crispin (pen name for Robert Bruce Montgomery). Very funny and yet very evocative. Excellent.

Other Fiction

Phantom Tollbooth - Norton Juster. This is allegedly a children's book. Great. Easy to read, funny, thoughtful. Will change how you look at life.
Crime Wave at Blandings - P. G. Wodehouse. Actually a long short story by the author best known for the character of Jeeves the butler, although this is not a Jeeves story. I cannot begin to tell you how funny this is. It can be found a lot of places, but was originally published in the collection "Blandings Castle and Elsewhere."
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T Minus Two by Bob Pedersen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.