Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Annotated Sherlock Holmes

The thousand and one footnotes

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Arabian Nights by Sir Richard Francis Burton

In recent years, whenever I’ve bought a movie on Blu-ray, it’s been with as much of an eye to the special features as to the quality of the film itself. The gold standard remains the special edition of The Lord of the Rings, which is practically a film school in a box, but when I look at my shelves, I see plenty of titles—ranging from The Lovely Bones to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—that I don’t think I’d own at all if it weren’t for their featurettes and supplements. These days, with sales of home media falling everywhere, bonus content is one proven way of convincing consumers to pay for a physical disc, and it appeals to our natural interest in commentaries, ephemera, and glimpses into the creative process. In some ways, you could see them as an updated version of the original bonus feature: the footnote. Footnotes and endnotes originally evolved to meet a utilitarian end, but as everyone from the compilers of the Talmud to Nicholson Baker have long since realized, they can provide peculiar pleasures of their own, a kind of parallel narrative to the main work that allows for asides and digressions that don’t fit within the primary argument. A long footnote is often more interesting than the text to which it refers, precisely because it feels so superfluous, and an entire industry has sprung up around copiously annotated editions of our favorite books, of which The Annotated Sherlock Holmes remains the undisputed champion.

I got to thinking about this after scoring a copy of what amounts to the most extraordinary collection of footnotes in the English language. It’s the sixteen-volume translation by Sir Richard Francis Burton of the Arabian Nights, or rather The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, which I picked up for a song this weekend at the Newberry Library Book Fair in Chicago. I’ve coveted this set ever since I first saw it in the library at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and when I see it in my office now, I feel like pinching myself. Much of the book’s fascination emerges from the figure of Burton himself, an unlikely combination of James Frazer, T.E. Lawrence, and Indiana Jones who comes as close any real historical figure to the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercials. He was a British adventurer, soldier, spy, and explorer who spoke close to thirty languages; he was among the first Europeans to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, in disguise, under constant threat of discovery and death; he searched, unsuccessfully, for the source of the Nile; he survived a spear through the face in Africa. His legend tends to obscure his real achievements, but as Jorge Luis Borges notes in his fine essay “The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights,” it’s the legendary Burton who survives. (Burton was clearly an enormous influence on Borges, and you see echoes of him everywhere in the latter’s stories, particularly in his lists of arcane facts and exotica.)

Sir Richard Francis Burton

And while I’m not sure I’ll make it through all sixteen volumes, I have every intention of reading every single one of Burton’s notes, which have a well-deserved reputation for raciness. Burton notoriously embraced the sexual and scatological elements of the original stories, to the point where the set was originally published in a private limited edition designed to get around the obscenity laws of the time. And there’s little question that his readers saw the annotations as a major selling point. Burton’s challenge, as Borges puts it, was “to interest nineteenth-century British gentlemen in the written version of thirteenth-century oral Muslim tales.” And in order to appeal to “the respectable men of the West End, well equipped for disdain and erudition but not for belly laughs or terror,” he loaded up his work with special features:

The text’s marvels—undoubtedly adequate in Kordofan or Bulaq, where they were offered up as true—ran the risk of seeming rather threadbare in England…To keep his subscribers with him, Burton abounded in explanatory notes on “the manners and customs of Muslim men.”

The result was the nineteenth-century equivalent of a deluxe box set with a commentary track and a fat disc of supplements, and I suspect that many of the set’s original purchasers, like me, were more interested in Burton’s special features—with their vast repository of sexual, ethnographical, and anecdotal material—than in the stories themselves.

As Borges concludes: “At fifty, a man has accumulated affections, ironies, obscenities, and copious anecdotes; Burton unburdened himself of them in his notes.” And boy, did he ever. Among the translation’s unique characteristics is an entire index devoted to the footnotes alone—presumably as a convenience to readers who just wanted to get to the good parts—and browsing through it feels like a trip to a bazaar of indescribable, vaguely dirty riches. (A few of the entires, chosen at random, include: “Female depravity going hand in hand with perversity of taste,” “Hymeneal blood resembles that of pigeon-poult,” and “Women, peculiar waddle of.”) Borges rightly observes that Burton’s commentary “is encyclopedic and seditious and of an interest that increases in inverse proportion to its necessity,” which is true of all footnotes, but especially here. A brief reference in one story to contraception, for instance, inspires two long paragraphs on the history of the condom, complete with prices and advice on usage, and the appendix includes what was then the longest discussion of homosexuality ever to appear in English. A lot of the material seems to have been chosen for its appeal to the idealized male reader of the time, in a sort of anticipation of the articles in Playboy, and as calculated as it all feels, it certainly works. It’s the richest collection of bonus features ever published, and thanks to Burton’s legacy, it comes across as even more. As Borges says, it’s like listening to a commentary track recorded by Sinbad the Sailor himself.

My ten great books #1: The Annotated Sherlock Holmes

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The Annotated Sherlock Holmes

(Note: For the next two weeks, I’m going to be chronologically counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author. It isn’t necessarily a list of my favorite books, or even my favorite novels—for a slightly dated ranking, please see here. It’s a celebration of the ten books that I’ve found myself unable to forget after a lifetime of reading, and which continue to appear in disguised form in every word I write. And although I’ll be treating them in the order of their original publication, as it happens, we’ll be starting today with the book I love the most.) 

I first encountered the best book in the world in the library of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. At the time, I was seventeen, and of course I was already in love with Sherlock Holmes: I’d even been exposed to the subculture of obsessive Holmes fans through the wonderful anthology A Baker Street Dozen, which I still think is the best introduction to Holmes and his world. What I found in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William S. Baring-Gould was something much more, an entire universe of speculation, whimsy, and longing, like the Orbis Tertius of Jorge Luis Borges, built on the rich soil of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. The rules of the game were simple. Holmes, Watson, and the vivid figures who populated their slice of London had been real men and women; Conan Doyle had been Watson’s literary agent; and the published stories themselves were glimpses into a larger narrative that could be reconstructed with enough patience and ingenuity. Given the scraps of information that the stories provided, you could figure out which building had been the model for 221B Baker Street; you could piece together the details of Watson’s military record, the location of his war wound, and the identities of his three, or perhaps four, wives; you could determine the species of the speckled band and whether “The Adventures of the Three Students” took place at Oxford or Cambridge; and you could pin down, with considerable accuracy, when and where each of the other adventures took place, even as Watson—or Conan Doyle—tried to divert us with “mistakes” that were deliberate misleads or red herrings.

The result of Baring-Gould’s work, which collects nearly a century’s worth of speculation into one massive, handsomely illustrated volume, is the first book I’d save if I could own only one, and for years, it’s been living on my desk, both as a source of inspiration and as a convenient laptop stand. (Leslie Klinger’s more recent edition is lovely as well, but Baring-Gould will always be closest to my heart.) And it’s taken me a long time to realize why I care about this book so much, aside from the huge obvious pleasure it affords. It represents a vision of the world—and of reading—that I find immensely seductive. Each story, and often each sentence, opens onto countless others, and if Conan Doyle didn’t mean for his work to be subjected to such scrutiny, that’s even better: it allows us to imagine that we aren’t following a trail of clues that the author meant for us to find, but discovering something that was invisibly there all along. “Never has so much been written by so many for so few,” as the great Sherlockian Christopher Morley once said, and it’s true. These studies are spectacularly useless, and they’re divorced from any academic or practical value, aside, of course, from the immense benefit of allowing us to spend more time in this world and in the company of two of the most appealing characters in fiction. It’s a way for the story, and the act of reading, to go on forever, and in the end, it transforms us. In the role of a literary detective, of a tireless investigator, you become Holmes, or at least the Watson to so many more capable readers, thanks to the beauty of the stories themselves. What more can we ask from reading?

The oops file

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After thirty yards, the road curved and the shade trees vanished. To his left, the hedge continued as before. On his right, the houses disappeared, replaced by a pond trimmed with reeds and pitch pines. Ospreys floated on the calm surface of the water.

This description comes from Chapter 6 of The Icon Thief, when Ilya is casing the mansion where he and another thief will shortly stage an elaborate heist, and it strikes me as a nice image, one that clearly evokes the setting, a peaceful neighborhood in the Hamptons. It isn’t flashy, but the writing is efficient and clear. The trouble, unfortunately, is that it contains a mistake, as a reader pointed out to me in a terse email, which read in its entirety: “Ospreys do not rest on the water; they rest in trees (preferably dead ones).” Well, I hope he liked the rest of the book. But I can’t deny that it’s a definite error on my part. In the months since The Icon Thief was first published, I’ve noticed a few factual lapses like this, some of which I’d rather not mention, although I’d like to correct the record to reflect that the woman to whom I refer, in passing, as “a dead patron of the arts” is actually very much alive.

And yet I’m strangely relieved that there aren’t more mistakes. The Icon Thief contains hundreds of factual statements that, even outside the context of the story, can be independently checked, verified, or disproved, and so far, the errors I’ve been told about or seen on my own amount to only a handful. I’ve been especially gratified to hear from a number of readers in the art world, including two experts on Duchamp, who would be more than capable of pointing out any inaccuracies. So far, if they’ve found any serious ones, they’ve been too polite to say so—allowing, of course, for the occasional liberties I’ve taken in the interest of constructing a fictional narrative. (I should also confess that my readers caught a number of similar mistakes before the book was published, which only demonstrates the necessity of subjecting any manuscript to thoughtful critical review.) But I’ve put a lot of effort into making sure, within human reason, that this book is correct in its details, even in points that are likely to elude the attention, or interest, of even the most diligent reader.

In this regard, I was motivated throughout by the example of the ferociously observant readers of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Arthur Conan Doyle was not what we’d call a great researcher, and he had trouble keeping even his own continuity straight. The most delightful aspect of the field of Sherlockian studies is the energy that these readers invest in both fact-checking and justifying any discrepancies they uncover, which include issues ranging from the location of Watson’s wound to the species of the speckled band to whether the weather in London was, in fact, drizzly and gray on a particular morning in 1895. (Sometimes they go a little too far: I’ve gone on record as saying that The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by William S. Baring-Gould is the best book in the world, but if it has one shortcoming, it’s that the editor rearranges the stories into his own eccentric chronology, ignoring narrative logic and character development to order them based on, say, contemporary weather reports.) And whenever I go back to check my own work, it’s with an eye to such a reader: highly intelligent, endlessly skeptical, and blessed with a seemingly unlimited amount of time.

Of course, the odds of my novels ever receiving even a fraction of the attention of the Holmes stories is pretty remote. All the same, the habit of reading your own work with this kind of audience in mind is a useful one. As I’ve noted before, all novels, especially in the suspense genre, tend to use factual information and accuracy in small details as a kind of synecdoche for the credibility of the plot as a whole, and any lapse will throw not just the disputed passage but the entire story into question. Even the tiniest mistake will pull the reader out of the fictional dream. As a result, I’ve found myself checking weather reports for the day in which a certain scene takes place, usually with the assistance of the invaluable Wolfram Alpha, and poring over maps and photographs—or, better yet, visiting locations in person—to make sure the action is plausible, or at least physically possible. While writing Ulysses, James Joyce wrote a letter to his aunt asking her to verify that an ordinary man could climb over the fence at No. 7 Eccles Street, and it’s that kind of diligence toward which we should strive. And all the while, we should remember that, unlike the Navajos, there’s no need for us to weave deliberate flaws into our blankets—they’ll have plenty of flaws of their own.

Written by nevalalee

October 17, 2012 at 10:00 am

In the dozy hours: the joys of the bedside book

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People have been reading in bed ever since there were books, if not beds, but the essential idea of the bedside book was perhaps first articulated by Thackeray, who wrote in his essay “On Two Children in Black”:

Montaigne and Howell’s Letters are my bedside books. If I wake at night, I have one or other of them to prattle me to sleep again. They talk about themselves forever, and don’t weary me. I like to hear them tell their old stories over and over again. I read them in the dozy hours, and only half remember them.

Despite its informal tone, this strikes me as an important moment in the history of literary criticism, because it describes a kind of reading that we all intuitively recognize. Our libraries are filled with one kind of book, our nightstands another, and although most bedside books have certain things in common, above all else, they’re a reflection of the reader’s personality. In some ways, what we read just before going to bed, or in the middle of the night, expresses more about who we are than the books we display for others—or ourselves—during the day.

So what makes a good bedside book? Ideally, given its specialized role, it should be a book that you can pick up casually and put down after a couple of minutes. As such, bedside books tend to have a miscellaneous quality: they’re often collections of short pieces, anthologies, or essays, rather than sustained arguments or narratives. They’re also books that you can open at random in hopes of finding something interesting. As a result, they might be books that you’ve read before and enjoy revisiting, or reference books with entries that don’t need to be read in any particular order. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of overlap between the bedside book and the bathroom book—although you may want to keep them in two separate stacks.

Apart from these considerations, the ideal bedside book tends to be whatever else you’re reading at the time, so there are often two levels of books on the nightstand. The pictures shown here, of my own bedside table, are uncharacteristically tidy: usually, along with the more or less permanent occupants, there’s another pile of books I’m currently reading. Since my move, though, I’ve had to reconstruct my own bedside library from scratch, so what you see here is something of an idealized version of my nightstand. Note, too, that these pictures are missing the best bedside book in the world, William S. Baring-Gould’s original Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which has been promoted, or apotheosized, to a permanent position on my desk.

Instead, we have Leslie Klinger’s more recent New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which is a charmer in its own right, along with Baring-Gould’s Annotated Mother Goose. We also have books on film, including David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary and Have You Seen? and Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies; anthologies, including The Limits of Art and the incomparable Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics; and, of course, books specifically designed to be read in bed, notably J. Bryan III’s Hodgepodge, Frank Muir’s Irreverent and Thoroughly Incomplete Social History of Almost Everything, and The People’s Almanac. These last three are resolutely old-school, but if you want something more contemporary and twee, Schott’s Original Miscellany will probably do.

The rest of the books reflect my own interests and tastes: A Pattern Language, one of the great books in the world, which I’m reading again as I settle into my new house; World Tales by Idries Shah; Dilys Winn’s classic Murder Ink; Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat, which I’m going to finish one of these days; Bill Simmons’s Book of Basketball, which is great bedside reading even if you aren’t a sports fan; The Essential Jesus by John Dominic Crossan; and the two volumes of Isaac Asimov’s original autobiography. (There should also be a copy of The Whole Earth Catalog here somewhere, along with The PreHistory of the Far Side, but these are still packed away.) And, of course, the iPad. You might think that the latter would make the rest obsolete, but that isn’t the case. Even after all this time, there’s something about reading a book in bed that technology can’t match, especially late at night, in Thackeray’s dozy hours.

The Adventure of the Novelist’s Back

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If alcoholism is the greatest occupational hazard of a novelist’s life, back trouble can’t be too far behind. As my doctor—not named Watson, unfortunately—reminded me last year, anyone who spends most of his time at a desk is going to have back problems, and the issue is especially pronounced for writers, who may need to work intensely for hours at a stretch. (This is less of a problem, of course, for those of us with writer’s block.) I’ve had back pain on and off ever since starting to write for a living, five years ago, and while I’ve managed to address most of the issues that were causing the trouble, it’s something that still bothers me from time to time.

Really, though, I have no one to blame for myself. I wrote most of the rough draft of my first novel—not The Icon Thief, but its unpublished predecessor, a long novel about India—while seated cross-legged on a couch in the living room of my old apartment, hunched over the laptop beside me. This position was comfortable at first, but after writing a quarter of a million words, it blew out my back in ways that I’m still paying for. I learned two things from the experience: 1. Don’t write a first novel that is 250,000 words long. 2. If you’re going to write anything at all, do so at a proper desk.

Since then, I’ve done my best to develop better habits. The first step was the purchase of a good chair. My luxurious old Aeron was, alas, a casualty of my move from New York to Chicago—although my brother is hopefully putting it to good use—and I’ve since replaced it with a less expensive but still pretty functional alternative. I’ve spoken before about the Symphony pillow from Tempur-Pedic, a must for anyone with back trouble, which I’ve since supplemented with a contoured pillow for my knees. As a result, I sleep much better, even though the combination sometimes makes me feel like an old man.

Finally, one needs a properly elevated workstation. After checking my own posture, I determined that my laptop had to be raised by about four inches to allow me to work comfortably. I could have invested in an expensive laptop stand, but casting an eye around own my bookshelves, I determined that the one-volume edition of William S. Baring-Gould’s Annotated Sherlock Holmes, elsewhere acclaimed on this blog as the best book in the world, fit the bill admirably. Ever since, I’ve been writing on Holmes, in more ways than one, and I’d like to think that my work is better for it. My back certainly is.

Written by nevalalee

July 28, 2011 at 9:41 am

The books of my life

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Today, inspired by an unusually compelling AVQ&A, I’ll be talking about the books that I’ve read more than any other. First up is Foucault’s Pendulum. This is one of those novels that I probably would have loved anyway, but which left an indelible mark on my life simply because of when I first encountered it—when I was thirteen years old and hungering deeply for books that, like the conspiracy theory at the heart of Eco’s novel, had “something to do with everything.” Looking back, I can see its limitations more clearly, and as I’ve said before, I’m afraid it’s been something of a dead end for me as a writer. Yet for better or worse, it’s influenced just about everything I’ve done since, most notably The Icon Thief, and it remains a work of exquisite wit and ingenuity. Aside from my own drafts, it’s the novel I’ve read the most—perhaps twenty times, mostly before my eighteenth birthday—although that record will probably be broken one day, possibly by The Silence of the Lambs.

The next book on the list is Labyrinths, at least the section devoted to short fiction. (Sad to say, but as much as I love many of Borges’s other essays, I don’t think I’ve ever made it through “The Argentine Writer and Tradition.”) Borges, like Eco, is primarily a writer of ideas, but he’s distinguished by greater precision and originality, and by a style that can seem curiously digressive on the paragraph level but intensely focused as a whole. If this is a paradox, it’s only the first of many that Borges inspires, and I suspect that he’s still rewiring my brain, years after I first read “The Library of Babel.” These days, the stories that I revisit the most include “The Immortal,” “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” and of course “Death and the Compass,” which is one of those works of art, like Hitchcock’s Vertigo, that I seem fated to constantly rewrite in one way or another. (Interestingly, I realize only now that I got into both Eco and Borges, back in my early teens, because of the entries devoted to their work in Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi’s great Dictionary of Imaginary Places. I should dig up a copy of that sometime.)

My last book is probably the third edition of The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher. This might seem like a strange choice, since I’ve always been a creature of the city, and it wasn’t until my recent trip to Peru and Bolivia that I did any backpacking at all. Yet Fletcher’s book seized my imagination when I discovered it at the age of ten, and I still love it more than almost any other, partly because of Fletcher’s wonderfully amusing and intelligent style, but also because of his vision of life. The world of The Complete Walker is one of remarkable order and simplicity, in which the pack becomes a self-contained house on your back, its weight pared, its pockets organized, its every item meticulously accounted for. Read as a straight guidebook for backpacking, it’s the best there is; read as an allegory for rigorous self-sufficiency, pursued with equal amounts of poetry and common sense, it’s the equal of Walden, and its solutions to our culture’s current predicament are even more accessible than Thoreau’s.

The runners up on my list would include many books that you’ve heard me talk about before: The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, The Art of Fiction, The Biographical Dictionary of Film, and Roger Ebert’s collected reviews, circa 1987, among others. And the remarkable thing about these books is how much remains to be read. I suspect that there are still a few Sherlock Holmes stories I haven’t read yet (maybe “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place?”), and while Labyrinths is a slim volume, there are still a few essays I haven’t touched, or at least don’t remember. Whole sections of Foucault’s Pendulum have long since fallen out of memory, and I can’t say for sure that I’ve explored every last nook of The Complete Walker. And I could spend a lifetime finding new things in Proust alone. In the end, it gives me a strange sort of comfort to know that there’s more out there, even in my most beloved books, waiting to be discovered. What about you?

My fifty essential books

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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 Madeline 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.


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