"You'll find plenty to interest you here...that is, if you're interested in things. " (Evelyn Waugh, Unconditional Surrender)
One of the things I enjoy about being off for a few days is being able to putter around the study, alone with my books. With some free time on my hands, I started making a mental list of my favorite books on the shelves. This soon became an exercise in futility, as the list became unwieldy. So, I decided to break it up into categories, and then limit my choices to 5 within each grouping.
Our house dates back to 1908, built by the first banker in town. This particular room was the bedroom of his daughter, Louise, who died as an 11-year old in the 1918 flu epidemic. Later, a maiden aunt, Sallie, occupied the room. A childless widow was the second owner of the house. She lived in one back room, shutting off the rest of the house. Technically, this was the guest room--but there were no guests. From the time she was a small child, my wife walked past the overgrown lot on her way to school every day, thinking that some day she would like to live there. So, in 1987 we purchased the then-derelict old place. The house consisted of 5 large rooms, with a wide hallway through the middle. There were dormers in the high, pitched roof, but the attic itself was completely unfinished, with no flooring or staircase. We added-on to the rear of the house and put the space in the attic to good use--finishing-out 3 bedrooms and 2 baths (and a staircase!). This left all the downstairs devoted to eating and "sitting-around" space. We gave especial attention to what was to become the study. We tore out the tacked-on closet and built floor-to-ceiling bookshelves along two of the walls. The ceilings are 11 ft., necessitating a rolling ladder to access the top shelves. But the room ultimately proved insufficient, as there are 8 other bookcases scattered throughout the house.
I recall a family reunion from the third year we lived here. Cousin Alice walked through the house, making a careful inspection. Alice was a thin, wizened-up little woman with bright red hair out of a bottle. She was my 2nd cousin once removed, my wife's 1st cousin once removed and 2nd cousin once removed (don't ask--a squirrel could jump effortlessly from one limb of my family tree to my wife's.) Alice stuck her head into the study...tentatively...and wrinkled her nose in a sign of slight distaste. "Oooh, he must be a bookworm," she said, in the same tone she would have used to describe an alcoholic child molester or something.
Of course, she was right. My childhood was as happy as could be expected. My parents were somewhat older, and had spent their married lives relentlessly pulling themselves up from Depression-era poverty. By the time I came along, the money was starting to roll in, and they were both keen to make more of it. That is to say they were busy people, and it was easy for me to be left by myself. My next oldest sibling was 11 years older than I, and as he viewed my arrival as something of a threat to his spotlight, we never really got on. We were not a bookish family, being more concerned with the here-and-now practicalities of life. My granddad would read to me, but he died when I was 8, and I never recall either parent doing that either before or after. A red-letter day in my early childhood was the day our 1964 World Book Encyclopedia arrived. I still remember unpacking the boxes. So, books were always my escape, and I suppose they still are.
But, here's my list:
1. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
Some may find this an odd choice from Dickens. David Copperfield, Martin Chuzzlewit and The Pickwick Papers are favorites, as well, but Bleak House, in my estimation, is Dickens at his best. And let's face it, some of Dickens can be a hard slog. But the characterizations and plot development in Bleak House are just the best. Part of the attraction was the insight it provided me for close associations who, like many of the protagonists in the book, wasted their lives waiting on an inheritance that never came. I've read the book through at least 3 times. The older BBC adaptiation with Diana Rigg as Lady Honoria Dedlock cemented this in my psyche as one of my all-time favorite stories.
2. A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell
A better writer than his contemporaries Waugh and Greene, and often compared favorably to Proust, Powell is perhaps the greatest largely-unknown novelist of the 20th-century. If you want to know about Victorian England, you read Dickens or Trollope. If you want to know about modern England, up through about 1975, you'd better be familiar with Powell. His 12-volume series, A Dance to the Music of Time, is a subtle masterpiece. I have read the entire series through at least 3 times, and perhaps 4, since 1984. I have been bothered that Powell's works and his characters are not infused with faith, there is no spark of the Divine, as one finds in Waugh. Powell was quietly non-croyant, as he would say. But really, there was actually no one better suited to chronicle the soullessness and sadness of the wreckage of modernity that was the 20th-century.
3. Howard's End, by E. M. Forster
Forster addresses some of the same themes as Powell: the life of the mind, and personal relationships vs. those that live by force of will, the outer life, as Forster calls it. But what I enjoy most about Howard's End is the exquisite sense of place that the novel conveys. The movie, with Vanessa Redgrave, captures this mood exactly. My favorite time to walk around the yard is at dusk, and I sometimes think of the scene where Ruth Wilcox does the same at Howard's End.
4. Collected Stories, by Flannery O'Connor
I have often referenced O'Connor as the one of the greatest theologians of the 20th-century. That may be "damning with faint praise," as they say. Some readers skim over her work and dismiss it as just more quaint and colorful, albeit bizarre, Southern Gothic storytelling. Those that do entirely miss the point. The stories are all about Grace; not the saccharine-sweet evangelical imitation, but the real kind--the kind that hits you up-side the head like a 2 by 4. Her tales are grotesque, they are jarring, and they will leave you a bit disturbed. But you won't soon forget them, and chances are, they may change you. My favorites include Parker's Back, Revelation, The Displaced Person, and of course, A Good Man is Hard to Find.
5. The Leopard, by Guisseppe de Lampedusa
This was the only novel of this Sicilian nobleman, published shortly before, if not after, his death. But like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, when you write this well, one book is enough. The old ways succumb, inexorably to the modern. All this shouldn't last; but it will, always; the human 'always,' of course, a century, two centuries...and then it will be different, but worse. We were the Leopards, the Lions; those who'll take our place will be the little jackals, and sheep. We'll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth. This book will haunt your memory.
1. The Jane Austen canon
I call this category "Guilty Pleasures," not in the sense of being in any way illicit, but rather that they offer pure, unadulterated escapism. Jane Austen's work must head this list. I have read all 6 novels through several times, with my favorites being Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. No one can consider themselves truly well-read without some exposure to Jane Austen. It's just that simple. I may need to re-read them again, if only to erase the mental image of the horrid recent BBC television adaptations.
2. Anything by Anthony Trollope
I think some unfairly consider Trollope to be a low-brow Dickens. Trollope was a prolific mid-Victorian writer who, like Dickens, desperately needed the money. He published 48 novels in all. Over a 12-year period, I read every one of them--4 a year. Trollope's writing is much more accessible, and less ponderous, than Dickens can sometimes be. My favorites are his Barsetshire series and his Duke of Omnion series. Dr. Thorne, one of the Barsetshire novels, is a favorite, as is The Way We Live Now, a biting satire of greed and avarice, not only for that era, but for ours as well.
3. Anything by Peter Taylor
Peter Taylor is little-read these days. I consider him to be one of the South's, if not the country's, greatest writers. His stories do not in any way fall into the typical Southern Gothic genre. Most deal with Tennesseans of good family, who find themselves increasingly ill-at-ease in our modern world. Taylor's stories are subtle, and he is the American writer who most approximates Anthony Powell, in my estimation. From In the Miro District:
Grandfather could only confide those feelings of his to other men. He would only confide them when he had a little whiskey in him. And what is important, too, is that he only drank alone or in the company of other men. He abhorred what my father and mother had come to speak of in the 1920s as social drinking. Drinking liquor was an evil and was a sign of weakness, he would have said, and just because one indulged in it oneself was no reason to pretend there was any virtue in it. That to him was hypocrisy. Drinking behind closed doors or in a secluded hunting lodge, though one denounced it in public as an evil practice, signified respect for the public thing, which was more important than one's private character. It signified genuine humility.
4. The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas
This is, in my estimation, the greatest adventure story ever written. If you've read it already, you know what I am talking about. I was in my early 40s before I discovered it, and I wish I had done so decades earlier. Don't wait as long as I did.
5. The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostovo
This is the only contemporary novel I have listed. I seldom read a novel by a living author, as I am almost always disappointed. That is not the case with this work. Kostovo has woven a ripping-good read containing murder, mystery, travel, libraries and vampires. What's not to like? A close runner-up was Louis de Bernieres' Birds Without Wings.
1. The Crusades, by Sir Steven Runciman
Sir Steven Runciman was a historian of the old school, and by that I mean a real historian. His work will stand the test of time. Runciman's history of the Crusades can truly be said to be magisterial, with no danger of hyperbole. Read anything he wrote, but start with this one. And in his collected works, he has proven himself to be a good, great friend of the legacy of Constantinople. I also highly recommend The Sicilian Vespers and The Great Church in Captivity.
2. History of the Renaissance in Italy, by Jacob Burkhardt
I was introduced to Burkhardt in my graduate history studies. Renaissance studies generally start with him. His evocation of 15th-century Italy casts an almost magical spell over the reader. Burkhardt was a true historian and this is his best work.
3. Albion's Seed, by David Hackett Fischer
Fischer examines the differing origins of British migration to America, and how this shaped our consciousness as a young nation. In this fascinating study, he follows the Puritans from East Anglia, the Cavaliers and their servants from the South of England, the Quakers from the Midlands, and the Scots and Scots-Irish from the Borderlands. The work held interest to me, as all my ancestors were here and in place by the time of the Revolution. I descend from all four groups. I can think of no better book to explain the culture of an America that once was.
4. The Alexiad, by Anna Comnena
The 12th-century is my favorite period of Byzantine history. The Comnenian revival had restored the empire to a semblance of its former glory following the collapse after Manzikert. But its enemies, East and West, were on the move, and as Runciman had noted, "the rot had set in." Who better to tell the story than, Anna, the ambitious daughter of Alexius I. In time, she became frustrated and bitter over her failure to ascend the throne after her father's death. She had to settle for being one of the world's greatest historians, which is not such a bad consolation prize. To firmly establish my Byzanti-nerd credentials, my alternate selection would have been Paul Magdolino's The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos: 1143-1180.
5. The Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire, by Thomas Hogdkin
This is old-style history at its best. One of my history professors once said that it was a cliche to refer to any era of history as a "transitional period," for all history is transition. That said, and begging the indulgence of Dr. McCroskey--wherever she is--it is these "transitional" ages of history that fascinate me. I particularly enjoy studying cultures that are on the down-swing, in the process of becoming who knows what. This is the very environment Prof. Hogdkin chronicles in 8 volumes--from the invasions of the Visigoths to the Huns to the Ostrogoths to the Justinian Revival to the Lombards to the Franks. Once in Istanbul, I visited the neglected ruins of the Church of St. Polyeuctus. I wanted to visit it especially, for it had been a gift of Anicia Juliana, the daughter of the incredible Galla Placidia, the daughter of Valentinian III, and one of the most interesting historical figures I've ever encountered. All this, and Theodoric too, I owe to Hogdkin.
BOOKS THAT HAVE CHANGED MY LIFE
1. The Epistles of Ignatius, by St. Ignatius
A chance reading in 2003--when my heart and mind were ready to receive (though unknown to me at the time)--propelled me down the road to the Orthodox faith. These are just 7 short letters, addressed to the churches of Asia Minor by Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, while awaiting to be transported to Rome, and martyrdom in 107 A.D. Ignatius was an old man at the time, and his life overlapped with the ministry of the Apostles. Indeed, he was a disciple of St. John the Theologian. To use the parlance of my religious heritage, Ignatius was a "First Century" Christian. That is why his letters were so dangerous for me to read--and really, for any evangelical Protestant to tackle in earnest. One could come away from the experience, merely saying, "So?" More likely, however, one will come away saying, "So...this changes everything."
2. From the Holy Mountain, by William Dalrymple
Ideally, this selection would head the list of the Travel category. But for me, Dalrymple's book is much more than just a jaunty travelogue. In the late 1990s, he chronicled the diminishing Christian world of the Near East. I read his account during the period I was investigating Orthodoxy. His concerns became my concerns. So, as a newly Orthodox convert, I began retracing some of his steps in 2006, and then in 2007 and again last year. That is real influence.
3. The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky
I finished this book while traveling in 2007, after my third try. The new translation helped, and so did being Orthodox. That said, The Brothers Karamazov is still a difficult read. But its acclaim is well-deserved and the rewards of persevering to the end are well worth it. I find it hard to explain to someone who has never read TBK, but it is simply one of the most significant books I have ever read.
4. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon
As something of an amateur Byzantinist, I now cringe at Gibbon's blatant anti-Christian prejudices, and Byzantine-bashing. And yet, you must begin here. If you are interested in Late Antiquity or the early Middle Ages, Gibbon is foundational. Like the New York Times, for better or for worse, he frames the debate. I have launched off on any number of historical tangents in the 24 years since I have read Gibbon. His writing gives context to all that has come afterwards. It is essential history, told in the best way.
5. The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis
It seems that anyone who finds their way out of the evangelical wasteland, spends some time walking alongside C. S. Lewis. That is how I see his collected body of work--as pointing us back in the right direction, walking with us for a ways and giving encouragement for the journey ahead. Back in my pre-Orthodox days, I had a disagreement with an elder in our church who advocated burning Lewis' works. If this wasn't the straw the broke the camel's back, it was the next one to it. I dumped him and stuck with Lewis and have never regretted the choice. Of all his writings, it was The Great Divorce, not Mere Christianity, that had the greatest effect on me.
1. When the Going was Good, by Evelyn Waugh
Before he became a noted author, Waugh was a travel writer. This volume is a compilation of some of his earliest writings. The book contains Waugh's assignment to Abysinnia covering the coronation of Haile Selaisse. This experience informed his wicked early novel, Black Mischief, as well as Scoop.
2. A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
This is the first volume of a proposed trilogy, describing young Fermor's trek across Europe, as he walked from England to Constantinople in the mid 1930s. I have not yet read the second volume. Fermor is still with us, living in Greece, as he has for many decades. He is in his 90s, still working on his notes for the last leg of the trip into Constantinople. If ever published, I will be first in line for a copy.
3. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West
I read this book many years ago. Dame Rebecca West spent a great deal of time in the former Yugoslavia, just before the Nazi troops washed over the country. She published her book in 1940, and it has been something of a standard for insightful travel-writing ever since. In light of all that has happened to that region in the last 2 decades, it would be a good candidate for re-reading.
4. All the Time in the World, by Hugo Williams
This is reminiscent of Fermor--a young Brit drifting around the world, poking about in odd corners. This time, the year is 1963. The English really do this better than anyone else.
5. The Vanishing Pomp of Yesteryear, by Lord Frederic Hamilton
I was all set to list Eastward to Tartary by Robert D. Kaplan as my last selection. Kaplan's recent account of his trek across the Balkans, Middle East and the Caucacus region would be a natural for me. And then I remembered Lord Hamilton's memoirs. He was a British career diplomat of the late 19th-century. His postings ranged from St. Petersburg to Asuncion. The book was not published until 1934, when Hamilton was quite old. There is a story from P. G. Wodehouse, where the hapless Bertie is commandeered to help snitch the apparently ribald memoirs of Sir Watkin Bassett, before it can be published, to the scandal of the family. One can just as well imagine Lord Hamilton's family trying to do the same. The Paraquayan chapter is a howler--from his walking the city streets incognito, passing himself off as Mr. Dwight P. Rogers of Hicksville, PA, to a day at the races with his favorable comparison of the barefoot Paraquayan women with those in the royal enclosure at Ascot, to his ride on the Paraguayan railway to nowhere. I seem to recall Hamilton also had quite a bit to say about the relative unattractiveness of Portuguese women...The book is a delight.
1. Monastic Wisdom: The Letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast
If I were trying to impress, I suppose I should be listing Vladimir Lossky's Mystical Theology of the Orthodox Church, or perhaps John Zizioulas' Being as Communion. I have both books, but they are not my favorites. My priest emphasizes the value in reading the lives of contemporary, or near contemporary monastics. I took him up on the advice, and started with this one--the "blue book" as I call it. Few books have had such an influence on my daily struggle. I recommend it unconditionally.
2. Lives of the Georgian Saints, by Archpriest Zakaria Machitadze
This is an incredible book--1700 years of the Faith in Georgia. The work chronicles the lives of over 100 Georgian saints, from the earliest days to World War II. The volume is lavishly illustrated--a treasure to keep and reread, as well as to give as a gift.
3. The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983
To be an American Orthodox Christian is to be in debt to Alexander Schmemann. His collected body of work is of profound importance to the growth and revitalization of the Faith in this country. His Journals, however, give one insight into the mind of this great man.
4. The Spiritual Psalter of St. Ephrem the Syrian, compiled by St. Theophan the Recluse
I am drawn to the writings of the Syrian Fathers, particularly St. Ephrem and St. Isaac. I read through The Spiritual Psalter of St. Ephrem the Syrian at least once a year. When I travel, the little volume usually goes with me. His writings are my gift of choice to catechumens upon their baptism and/or chrismation. That such wisdom is largely lost to the wider Christian world is a tragedy.
5. The Spiritual Meadow, by John Moschos
"I have plucked the finest flowers of the unmown meadow and worked them into a row which I now offer to you," the monk John Moschos wrote of his journey among the holy men of 7th-century Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. It was Moschos who inspired William Dalrymple to embark on his travels which resulted in From the Holy Mountain. Enough said.
BEST BOOKS I HAVEN'T YET READ
1. Democracy in America, by Alexis de Toqueville
Most readers have books in their collections that look good on the shelf, but remain unread. I am no different, the most glaring example being this one. I have a fat red slip-cased edition that convicts me every time I walk into the room. I am aware of the significance of de Toqueville's work. A quote thrown out from de Toqueville has carried many an argument. But nevertheless, I remain un-de Toquevilled.
2. Collected Stories, by Anton Chekov
I know, I know. Soon....I promise.
3. The Inferno, by Dante Alighieri
I've made two attempts so far, making it down to the 7th circle of Hell this last time. My son has read all 3 several times. He just loves the work and can quote from it at ease. I feel confident that my next try will be successful.
4. August 1914, by Alexander Solzenitzhen
I'm like so many people--we know a lot about Sozenitzhen, but we've never read him. I have read the transcript of his famous Harvard speech, but that is about all. I make no pretensions about ever trying to read The Gulag Archipelago. If I haven't read it by now, I'm not going to. But I would like to read this volume, the first in a little-read trilogy of the Russian Revolution.
5. The Life of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell
My Anglophile days are long gone, so there is little chance I will ever crack this one.
POLITICAL THEORY/CURRENT EVENTS
1. At the End of an Age, by John Lukacs
"Because of the goodness of God I have had a happy unhappy life, which is preferable to an unhappy happy one." Anything Lukacs writes is good. This book is a good place to start. I look forward to reading his new biography of George Kennan.
2. The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East, by Robert Fisk
To understand where we are in the Middle East, as how we got there, The Great War for Civilization is essential reading. He covers everything: the Palestinian Question, Lebanon, the Armenians, the Kurds, Iraq, the Persians, the Saudis, etc. I also considerA Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin, and of course, Imperial Hubris to be essential reading as well.
3. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, by Samuel Huntington
This book made quite an impression on me when first published in about 1995. I've reread it since, I find no fault in his thesis. His theory has been often misapplied, and consequently wrongly attacked--particularly in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. This book should be read and understood.
4. Around the Cragged Hill, by George Kennan
George Kennan was the premier American foreign policy diplomat and intellectual of the 20th-century, dubbed in an Atlantic cover article "The Last Wise Man." His sage counsel has not been followed in this country for quite some time now, with obvious results. In this volume, he lays out his personal and political philosophy.
5. The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk
Kirk's book serves as a primer for would-be Conservatives. Many who call themselves by that name would do well to peak within its covers. The best chapters are the early ones covering Edmund Burke and John Adams. And the introduction to the largely unknown and fascinating Orestes Brownson is worth the price of the book.
1. The Rogue's Game, by Milton Burton
I have had 2 friends that have stuck by me, through thick or thin, for more than 20 years now. Milton is one of them. Several years ago, he published his first novel, The Rogue's Game, which was very well-received. His second, The Quick and the Dead, also enjoyed a successful run. Several more are in the pipeline now, waiting to be published. Milton's works are in the crime novel genre, an area in which I am not well-versed. But his mastery of dialogue and characterization is a delight to read. I look forward to expanding my collection of signed, first-edition Burtons.
2. The Sword of Honor Trilogy and/or Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
I often wondered why I enjoyed the Sword of Honor Trilogy so much. I generally do not enjoy war novels. I recently reread Brideshead Revisted. I had forgotten just how good it was. Nobody does the chipping-away by modernity of continuity, tradition and family better than Waugh.
3. The Landmark Herodotus
I have just begun to mine the riches of this work. I now know where the expression "as rich as Croesus" came from.
4. Middlemarch, by George Eliot
I haven't read much of Eliot. I believe this book and Daniel Deronda are the only ones. I place her work midway between Dickens and Trollope, and as such, an enjoyable and satisfying read.
5. The Golovlyov Family, by Mikhail Evgrafovich Saltykov
I haven't read Anna Karenina. I haven't read Crime and Punishment. I haven't read Chekov. But I have read Saltykov's The Golovlyov Family. The characters are loathsome and despicable. One reviewer said the story made Wuthering Heights look positively sunny in comparison. Reading it will make you a better person--if only to avoid being like the Golovlyovs.
1. Splendora, by Edward Swift
There's something funny about the new librarian in the fictional town of Splendora in deep East Texas. Things come to a head at the annual "Crape Myrtle Festival," a thinly-disguised take on Woodville and its annual "Dogwood Festival." From my connections in that part of the state, I heard that what passed for "society" in the burg were not amused--which makes it just all the more fun.
2. Southern Ladies and Gentlemen, by Florence King
King's book is a timeless classic. She is FFV (First Families of Virginia) so she can get away with poking fun at our Southern eccentricities. A favorite chapter covered the "Self-Rejuvenating Virgin," with 16 reasons "why it didn't count."
3. Delta Wedding and/or The Ponder Heart and/or Why I Live at the P.O., by Eudora Welty
I should like Eudora Welty more than I do. I always felt there was something lacking from her work. Later I read that she was puzzled by the religious aspect of Flannery O'Connor's work. That is what was missing. Nevertheless, Delta Wedding is a comic masterpiece, as is the novella The Ponder Heart and the short story, Why I Live at the P.O.
4. The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, by Henry Fielding
One of the first comic novels is still one of the best. I particularly enjoyed the BBC adaptation from about 1997 or so, as well.
5. Life With Jeeves, by P. G. Wodehouse
Somehow, I doubt the 1920s were exactly like this. Even the idle rich couldn't have been as clueless and useless as Bertie Wooster. Wodehouse's tales of Bertie and Jeeves and Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeline Bassett, and Aunt Agatha and Aunt Dahlia and Roderick Spode and Sir Watkin Bassett and the Drones Club, etc. are laugh-out-loud funny even yet.