‘…A Wave of the Wand…’, Part Two

Patrick Leigh Fermor.

The first part of this post was published on May 30.

The writer and polymath Patrick Fermor once contributed to an anthology on reading and blah, blah, blah, toward the end of his essay, he smirkingly plans for the library he would want in exile on a desert island. Way leads onto way, and I began thinking about my own list.

A list of “books” for a library in exile compiled by the writer Patrick Fermor.

The rules are, in short, and as already stated here, You are headed to exile, and can only bring 10 books (not including the bible and all of Shakespeare, which are freebies). What do you pack? (Besides underwear.) It is important to note that Fermor had trouble choosing his favorites from particular authors, and so, for instance, he proposed to glue five books by Evelyn Waugh together. Never mind what you think about arts and crafts, an observer must be philosophical in this case about what is meant by the word “book.”

The interesting thing about the problem, obviously, is that it seems to be one thing on the surface, i.e. a list of favorite books, but it really is a whole other kettle of fish. Many books feel like favorites, of course. I recall reading “The Monk,” a Gothic novel by Matthew Gregory Lewis, and being surprised and thrilled. But how often would that happen? The compiler must consider re-readability and length, and so the adjective “favorite” slips a little farther from the mind. And (egad) some books, no matter how loved, seem altogether inappropriate: “Lord of the Flies,” “Robinson Crusoe,” “Treasure Island.”

Swooping into the mind are other things. I began to consider books that have felt a little above my head, like the erudite “God’s War,” a history of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman. Well-reviewed and enticing, “War” has sat tantalizingly unread on my shelf for a year or two. While I am easily absorbed when picking it up, I soon begin to think of things like taking notes and, Where is my dictionary. I get a similar, if sinking, feeling from Diarmaid MacCulloch’s superb “Christianity,” though I conquered that (with a notebook) two years ago. Further twisting my mind is the thought of finally vanquishing old enemies like calculus. Perhaps Fermor would allow uncounted a suite of textbooks and reference works?

In any event, presuming I can operate under the same lenient guidelines that Fermor did, occasionally gluing volumes together and sneaking things into my pocket, and maybe even coming up with a list of 11, here is my top 10, in no particular order:

History of Western Philosophy” by Bertrand Russell.
I would have happily included Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall” on my list, but since Fermor already mentioned it I propose Russell. Not only is this fun to read, it also serves as a kind of history of the world, covering some of the same territory Gibbon does and with a similar, engaging style.
The Viking Press’s “The Sagas of the Icelanders.
I would have happily included Homer on my list, too. In its place, here are epics of a different stripe. These are awesome, swaggering tales that make modern action movies seem piddling, trifling things. If you by chance have not read either these or Homer, start with these; they are far more fun.
The Age of Entanglement” by Louisa Gilder.
This was one of The New York Times’s notable books from 2009, and is both a fascinating history of the golden age of physics and a readable primer on the complicated principles involved.
The Road to Disunion,” volumes one and two by William Freehling.
Freehling brings a lively style and bright commentary to antebellum America, and the result is probably the best general history of the United States there is. His twin volumes, in some ways, tell the story of the Civil War better than most Civil War histories.
A Time for Gifts,” “Between the Woods and the Water,” “The Traveler’s Tree,” “Roumeli“ and “Mani” by Patrick Fermor.
This is a Fermor-style indulgence, but it is all Fermor. These cover the best-known titles of his travel writing. Gluing these books together forms an unwieldy five-inch binding, and so I for now have left out “Three Letters From the Andes,” “A Time to Keep Silence“ and “The Violins of Saint-Jacques.” Probably, I will stuff these in my shorts while waiting on the pier for my trunk to be loaded.
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” “Theodore Rex“ and “Colonel Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris.
This would create a binding perhaps more than a foot long, but it can be understood as a single work and feels less like cheating. My comment is that the prologue of “Rise” is perhaps the best writing I have ever read. More generally, I do not remember books I’ve enjoyed more than any of these three. (Strongly recommended.)
Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Emma,” and “Persuasion” by Jane Austen.
Another Fermor-style indulgence, but for Austen it seems fair. I’ve never read any of these (I know!) but have dabbled with several passages, notably from “Pride” after having seen feature-film versions and the probably-more-famous BBC mini-series. A desert-island exile seems like the perfect time to start.
Kahlil Gibran: The Collected Works” from the Everyman’s Library.
Haunting, humorous. You don’t have to be a hippy to get into Gibran.
Every Man Dies Alone” by Hans Fallada.
This is simply great, a contender for favorite book. I have also read Fallada’s “The Drinker,” which is quite good, if morose, and “Wolf Among Wolves,” which is compelling but occasionally dry. But “Every Man” deserves a slot of its own in my exile.
Death Comes for the Archbishop,” by Willa Cather.
Cather sneaked high up into my most-read authors list on Goodreads without my even realizing it. “Death Comes” is my favorite, and must be some of the best writing about the Old West there is. Were I as self-indulgent as Fermor was in compiling his list, I would have included Cather’s “O Pioneers!” and “My Antonia,” among others.

So. That is that. But there is more.

At the end of Fermor’s essay, as a kind of footnote, he writes a sort of farewell to all the books he cannot take with him. In one passage, for instance, he writes, “I stroke ‘Wings of the Dove’ for the last time.” I had a similar feeling when editing this list. There was:

    • “Illumination in the Flatwoods” is a memoir of sorts written by Joe Hutto, a naturalist who raises a brood of turkeys from hatchlings. It sounds absurd, but it is a tremendously moving story. The ending is sadder than “Old Yeller.”
    • The Penguin Classics “Collected Fictions” of Jorge Borges is a great book I have already reread. Which reminds me of “Borges and the Eternal Orangutans,” which any fan of Borges should read.
    • I love poetry, and recently fell in love with “Spain, Take This Chalice From Me” by Cesar Vallejo. I would be sad, too, to leave behind Pablo Neruda, Garcia Lorca and William Henley, to name a few.
    • “The Scientists” by John Gribbin, which tells the story of science beginning with Copernicus, and “Age of Wonder” by Richard Holmes, which focuses on the Romantic Age, are enjoyable histories of science easily as fascinating and readable as “Age of Entanglement.” Also, for desert exile, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” a compilation of the landmark works by Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Einstein edited by Stephen Hawking, seems like just the thing.
    • I read a lot of history, so not surprisingly there are a lot of books I would be sad to leave behind. Shelby Foote’s “Civil War” has strong sentimental value for me, but it obviously is excellent and its three volumes conveniently come in a box. (No glue required.) “Crucible of War” by Fred Anderson, which is about the French and Indian War, is full of charm and wit (and I, for one, cannot wait for his entry in the Oxford History of the United States). David McCulloch is arguably the finest American historian, and his books (“The Great Bridge,” “The Path Between the Seas” and “1776”) are some of the best I have ever read. But I left him off my list because I had done enough gluing and could not choose just one. And “The Vertigo Years” is an innovative history of the buildup to World War I, going not chronologically but by broad subject areas, so that the reader gets more than the dry politics.
    • I love travel writing, and was thrilled to recently find “Black Lamb, Grey Falcon” by Rebecca West before traveling to Croatia. “The Way of the World,” “In Patagonia,” “As I Walked Out One Summer Morning” and “The Great Railway Bazaar” are justifiably classics, too. But perhaps a one-in-a-lifetime trip is not the time?

And, ugh, way leads onto way. Title mounts upon title. And I almost wish I hadn’t started thinking about it.