If the shelf was small, these are the books I’d fill it with

op frEach new year brings out the list-makers, pundits and critics who catalogue everything from the year’s best movies, books, and music to predictions regarding politics and the economy for the next 12 months. With the exception of composing my own personal lists from the past year — “Ten Things I Would Have Done Differently” would be easily written — I lack the qualifications to compose any sort of compendium, including one for books, for 2013.

Yet I do find myself compelled to make a list of favorite books. Several readers of this column, and many of my students, have over the last years asked for such a list, and I would send them three or four recommendations, selections often plunked down without any real effort or thought. Having pondered the matter this week before the new year, I found myself wondering what I would put on such a list if I was, say, limited to a small shelf of favorite books.

 Here, for better or worse, is that shelf, with the titles all higgledy-piggledy and in no particular rank:

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Set in England between the wars, this story of Charles Ryder and his involvement with the wealthy Flyte family gives us Waugh, one of the great English novelists of the twentieth century, writing at the peak of his power. Ryder’s insights on the English upper class, on Catholicism, and on the passions are entertaining and instructive.

Graham Green’s The End of the Affair. Here too is another book with a religious theme, yet Greene’s Catholicism is very different than Waugh’s. Greene’s protagonist is a non-believer who ends up battling God for the soul of Sarah, the woman he loves. The novel explores the secret chambers of the human heart — in this case, the vehicle for this exploration is adultery — and exposes the reader to another modern master of style. This is a book which offers new revelations with each reading.

Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War. Not all of Helprin’s novels appeal to me, but this is a book that again and again has demanded my attention. Helprin’s Alessandro gives us a hero as a protagonist. Here is a book which, unlike so many others, somehow calls us to be better than we are. It is a sweeping novel of war, love, and death.

Florence King’s With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy. King, who has written openly of her affairs with men and women, and who is a self-described “old maid,” is herself a misanthrope with a barbed-wire wit and a lacerating style. Also worth reading is Stet, Damnit!: The Misanthrope’s Corner, which is a 400-page collection of essays she wrote for National Review. Her ability to drive a dagger of words into unctuous people and stupid ideas always makes me smile.

Judith Martin’s Miss Manners Rescues Civilization. This book, always close-at-hand on my desk, is the volume I turn to whenever I need to create a character or a column with an elevated prose style. Ten minutes of Martin’s crisp prose and withering comments bring the same sensibility to my own writing. 

Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save The World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age. Wolfe’s reflections on literature, art, and beauty have continued to influence my own thinking. This book, too, sits within an arm’s length on my desk, reminding me of the importance of beauty and wonder, and how we are so often blind to their great gifts.

Michael Dirda’s Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life. In this slim volume, Dirda, a long-time literary critic for the Washington Post, covers the influence of books on our lives from our early education to our final hours. Along the way he offers readers valuable lessons, ranging from the importance of books to children to books on love. In addition, the numerous — and unusual — quotations that accompany each chapter should delight anyone who in turn delights in such things.

Peter Bowler’s The Superior Person’s Book of Words. This book, and the subsequent two volumes, always amuse. Here, for example, is the entry for “Gorgonize: to petrify or paralyze, as if by the gaze of the Gorgon Medusa. ‘Mormons at the door, Charlotte—up you get and gorgonize them, quick, before they get started!’”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms. More than just a thesaurus, this excellent resource distinguishes between synonyms, helping careless writers select the exact word for a passage. To paraphrase Mark Twain: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.” This dictionary helps you find the lightning.

Alan Loy McGinnis’s Bringing Out The Best In People: How to Enjoy Helping Others Excel. Two years ago, I read this book during the summer, hoping I might find a tip or two to help my teaching. What I discovered were many excellent ideas and plans that work in a variety of settings and which have brought many positive results.

Shelby Foote’s The Civil War. Though I read these three volumes straight through more than 20 years ago, I have dipped into these books frequently over the years. Here are history, biography, and philosophy, all couched in wonderful language. Though I have read a good many history books over the years, these stand apart. Foote is the Homer of historians: he stands on Olympus and looks down on what he calls “America’s Iliad.” 

Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers. This book, and not A Clockwork Orange, was surely Burgess’s greatest novel. Here he creates a writer loosely based on Somerset Maugham, and then uses him as a vehicle for investigating issues and incidents of the twentieth century from World War I to our current age: the preoccupation with sex, the horrors of war, the unhinging of faith. Burgess’s love of language and words together with his scintillating wit make every page of this story a delight. 

(Jeff Minick is a writer and a teacher. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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