Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My fifty essential books

with 4 comments

Just over a year and a half ago, I moved from New York to Chicago, forcing me to figure out what to do with seven years’ worth of books. The prospect of shipping them all to my new apartment was daunting: after years of living a temptingly short train ride from the Strand, all of my shelves were stacked at least two books deep, and additional piles were everywhere. In the end, I ultimately decided to radically downsize my library, going from something like thirty boxes of books down to six. And the experience taught me a lot about which books really mattered to me.

But what if I only had room for fifty books? Or twenty? Or five? Such drastic reduction, real or imaginary, is the most ruthless way I know of building a personal canon—which, really, is nothing more than a series of choices. Do I care more about Borges or Conan Doyle? Shakespeare or Proust? Life rarely demands such stark decisions, but it’s a useful way of creating a self-portrait in books, as if a library were a block of raw stone that had to be carved away, piece by piece, until what remained was something like an image of myself. With that in mind, then, here’s as true a portrait of my inner life as I know how to provide:

1. The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and William S. Baring-Gould
2. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
3. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
4. Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics by R.H. Blyth
5. A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander
6. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson
7. The Complete Walker III by Colin Fletcher
8. The Next Whole Earth Catalog by Stewart Brand (editor)
9. The White Goddess by Robert Graves
10. A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by William Shakespeare and Ted Hughes

11. Rabbit Angstrom by John Updike
12. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
13. The Complete Peanuts (1969-1970) by Charles M. Schulz
14. Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco
15. Immortal Poems of the English Language by Oscar Williams
16. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
17. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
18. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (translated by Allen Mandelbaum)
19. Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
20. The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton

21. Metamagical Themas by Douglas R. Hofstadter
22. It by Stephen King
23. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
24. Napoleon by Emil Ludwig
25. The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
26. The I Ching by Richard Wilhelm (translator)
27. Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence
28. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
29. The Writer’s Chapbook by George Plimpton (editor)
30. Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman

31. The Complete Far Side by Gary Larson
32. Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini
33. On Growth and Form by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson
34. World Tales by Idries Shah
35. On Directing Film by David Mamet
36. The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang
37. Cain x 3 by James M. Cain
38. Atonement by Ian McEwan
39. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
40. The Annotated Alice by Lewis Carroll and Martin Gardner

41. The Codebreakers by David Kahn
42. The Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea
43. D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
44. The Magus by John Fowles
45. For Keeps by Pauline Kael
46. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
47. Ulysses by James Joyce
48. The Apology by Plato
49. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
50. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

A few notes: Borges and Conan Doyle switched places at the last second. Dropped at the final minute were the Iliad and Antigone (the last remaining vestiges of a classical education). I’ve limited myself to one book per author, which resulted in surprisingly few omissions. If pressed, I might want to take a few extra volumes of The Complete Peanuts instead of the last several authors. And, obviously, this isn’t meant as a list of the best books of all time, or even necessarily of my own favorites—just the books without which I would find it very inconvenient to live.

Tomorrow, I’ll be doing the same thing for movies.

4 Responses

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  1. Interesting. Math books have long fled my list. I’m reminded of what Auerbach did in Mimesis or Kinbote to poor Timon.

    My own version of this is that the only English language book that I’m taking with me to Taiwan later this month is the Library of America Ashbery.

    Is the focus on English-language titles a matter of edition, taste, or convenience?

    drewberthu

    January 4, 2011 at 7:47 am

  2. Mostly the latter. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from the distillation of a lifetime’s random reading.

    nevalalee

    January 4, 2011 at 8:52 am

  3. You’re barely 3/5s of a Japanese lifetime!

    But I shudder to think about KIDS THESE DAYS! I’m holding out against the ereader business, although given the quantity of PDFs I’m grinding through these days, I wonder if that will be the equivalent down the road. My point, I think, is that I’m with you on the compilational books above.

    drewberthu

    January 4, 2011 at 12:25 pm

  4. Oh yeah—it’s all about the great anthologies. Auden’s might be best, but Oscar Williams is closest to my heart.

    nevalalee

    January 4, 2011 at 11:09 pm


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