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My 10 Favorite Books

For his bookshop and website One Grand Books, the editor Aaron Hicklin asked people to name the 10 books they’d take with them if they were marooned on a desert island.


Middlemarch, George Eliot

This book has the virtue of being the most perfect novel ever written. It manages to blend the miniature world of an uninteresting town with a profound reckoning with the human heart in all its vagaries. Here we find courage, pettiness, self-deception, love, profundity, triviality, sadness, joy, munificence, greed, theatricality, restraint, wit, pomposity, despair, hope. It’s seductively readable, free of pretension and written with a rare cleareyed kindness.

The Complete Poems, Elizabeth Bishop

A life’s work may occupy shelf upon shelf, or all the genius may be distilled down to a concentrate of wisdom, and I would love to think that I’ve ever thought anything as clearly as Bishop has thought each of her poems. My favorite lines forever:

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

Random Family, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

There has been no finer nonfiction written in the last century than this penetrating examination not only of a particular family and its travails (written with the complex plot of a Tolstoy novel), but also of the ways in which our society is broken, of a system that congratulates itself as democracy and yet is intractably inequitable. This book has no agenda and makes no argument; it simply reveals the truth of the country in which we live, and allows us to formulate our own call to action.

The Towers of Trebizond, Rose Macaulay

This is, without exception, the funniest book I’ve ever read. The phrase book scene (which I won’t delineate further in case you haven’t yet read the book and might enjoy doing so) has made me laugh every time I’ve read it, and I’ve now read it several hundred times. Macaulay has a great gentleness, and though she keeps up her wry take on the absurd, she is also engaged in moral inquiry, in the attempt to know and understand what is right and what is the opposite of right.

The Renaissance, Walter Pater

I quoted from the conclusion in my wedding ceremony:

Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us — for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? … To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.

The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James

I read this whenever I need to be reminded that elegance is not reason enough to live, that we are all spiraling toward despair, and that whatever it is that leads us in that darksome way is probably of our own making. A lushly gorgeous, utterly occupying examination of how innocence is corrupted — and how it can be saved.

Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud

This volume contains the clearest explanation of the real difficulty of life, which is the reconciliation of the personal and the social. It is a curiously renewing experience to find one’s struggle so precisely delineated; Freud here reveals the mechanisms of the mind with a calm brilliance that shines no less brightly for all the recent attacks on psychoanalysis. I love this book because it is so wise.

Rootabaga Stories, Carl Sandburg

Grossly underappreciated, this is in my view the best of all children’s books — wildly, passionately imaginative, gently moral and quintessentially American, both in its diction and in a certain rough-hewn but kindly common sense. I also choose it because it was read to me by my father when I was a little boy, and it became for some time our private world. Rereading it always carries me back to a very happy stage when I was more innocent than I knew: I associate it with love.

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

If I could write like anyone, I’d want to write like Tolstoy, to get that vernacular of veracity that seems not to build up characters, but to strip them to their purest essences. To read this book well is to learn a great deal about both war and peace, and about the violent and kind impulses of man. But it is also totally absorbing; I couldn’t bear to put it down the whole time I was reading it and would have chosen the next page over food even had I been wrecked a month at sea.

Jacob’s Room,