I'm a sucker for lists. As such, I've been having a lot of fun over the last few weeks poking around the Top Ten list put together by book review editor J. Peder Zane. Zane asked 125 British and American "top authors" to provide ranked lists of their ten favorite books. He then scored them based on priority (a book listed first on a list got ten points, second got nine points, etc.) and tallies all these scores to deliver a Top 100 list of books. The top picks are roughly what you'd expect, as the methodology leans heavily on consensus (#1 Anna Karenina, #2 Madame Bovary, #3 War & Peace, #4 The Great Gatsby, #5 Lolita) but what's interesting is that after each book you can see links to which authors rated a book highly, and click through to see individual author's top ten lists.
With summer starting, I have my own (doubtless far over-optimistic) list of planned upcoming reading. The prospect of long days, some of them out of the office, somehow promises the possibility of reading more than usual, despite the fact that vacation this year will be spent crisscrossing the country to attend a series of weddings.
However unrealistic this may be, it seems time for a summer reading list meme, and so I present: "Six For Summer" The rules are simple, list six books that you would recommend to others this summer and provide a quick description of each. Of the six, three are "watershed reads", books that you look back on as having been pivotal in your life. (To avoid repetition, the Bible is off limits.) The other three are "waterside reads", the sort of book you can read straight through in one long, lazy afternoon, or read in five to ten minute snatches during a trip, and enjoy either way.
Brideshead Revisited was one of my father's favorite books, but he'd told me that I shouldn't read it until I was 40 because I wouldn't understand it. The result was, of course, that I read it right away -- in the summer before leaving for college. I don't think I got as much out of Brideshead at 18 as I have in later years, but nonetheless I got a lot. The idyllic glow of Charles' early days at Oxford appealed strongly as I headed off on my own for the first time, while Waugh's tragic and wistful vision of what follows provided a much needed grounding in human reality. I think I've read Brideshead four or five times now, and it continues to grow on me over time.
A Dance to the Music of Time really is a book that you're best off reading when you're a little bit older. It self enforces that a bit, as it is arguably a single novel, but one which was published as twelve short novels over the course of 24 years (1951 through 1975) -- even if you start young you'll be older when you finish. The twelve novels are broken up into four movements of three novels each, which very loosely align to the four seasons (spring through winter) of the year and of life. The First Movement begins in the 1920s as the narrator character, Nick Jenkins, is at school with his friends. The Second Movement, which I'm currently re-reading, takes place in the mid to late thirties as the second world war looms. The third movement takes place during the war, and the fourth stretches into the early seventies. Somewhat like Brideshead, the theme here is memory, and way in which people and themes move in and out of one's life like the participants in a dance to which one cannot always quite here the music. Powell has a lush, mid-century British prose style which is a joy to read. While when I first read the books I just enjoyed them, they've grown on me over time, as the complex, interwoven story of Nick's circle of acquaintances (the clubbish circle of mid century British arts and politics) comes to seem more and more like life.
The Lord of the Rings is certainly the longest standing member of my watershed list. I first read it at 13, but it's influence on my life goes back much further. My parents met through the Mythopoeic Society back in the early '70s, and so not only did I grow up steeped in Lewis & Tolkien, I probably never would have existed had my parents not met through a shared love of their works. Although I've almost completely fallen away from reading new genre writing, LotR remains a classic for me, and one that re-impresses me every time I go back to it -- the more so now that whenever I crack it open I realize how badly the movies missed the boat by the comparison.
Spies of the Balkansis Alan Furst's most recent available novel, or if you wait another couple weeks you could try this year's Mission to Paris. While I've enjoyed some Furst novels more than others (my favorites thus far, in no particular order are Spies of the Balkans, The Polish Office, Kingdom of Shadows, and Spies of Warsaw) all are taughtly enjoyable thrillers set in the days of falling night in Europe during the final lead up to World War II and the early days of the war. Furst has a strong moral sense for the ways in which people are drawn into conflicts and the trade-offs they make once they are.
Amy Welborn's Wish You Were Here: Travels Through Loss and Hope is half travel book, half memoir of grief and loss, and the strong sense of the Sicilian sun makes it perfect summer reading. Well written and touching, you may find yourself blinking away tears a few times, but it is at root a deeply beautiful and hopeful book. And shouldn't all hope be infused with beauty and sadness?
The History Of Our World Beyond The Wave is a deeply quirky book. It takes what might be the premise for a SciFi thriller (a giant wave circles the world, wiping out civilization and leaving few survivors) and produces instead a surrealistic fantasy with theological undertones. Short, well written, and delightfully odd, it's a worth-while summer read, and is perhaps the only book in which a yellow VW bug becomes an object of sheer terror.
Please feel free to provide your own lists either in the comments or on your own blog (in which case, please link back.)