My friend is about to christen her new bookshelf. Being a good friend of mine, she of course takes this very seriously. What are the first five books worthy of putting on your shelf? Here are mine:
Nothing passes the time like Burton’s unabridged translation of The Arabian Nights (as you will learn if you read Kafka on the Shore by Murakami). These tales, some fantastical, some moral, some just fun, form the Arabs’ most popular epic. But my favorite aspect of Burton’s translation is actually his commentary, meant for a Victorian audience, but based on decades among Arab nations. My edition is a facsimile (exact copy) of the first edition, printed in 1902.
This group of stories culminates in “The Lady with the Little Dog,” one of my favorite short stories ever written. The story is about an adulterous affair in Yalta and memorably involves a watermelon. But this entire publication is simply delicious, starting with the cover design by the inimitable David Pearson.
One of my most beloved books—so much so that I plan to name my first son, if I ever have one, after one of the characters—in a gorgeous translation. This book, essentially a murder mystery, has been a great guide as to what sort of life I should lead. It deserves pride of place on my shelf.
This is a book for rainy days, for sunny days, for reading in bed, for reading in the sand, for reading on the grass. Gibbon’s prose takes some getting used to (it borrows a lot of Latin stylistics), but once you give him a chance, he has you entrapped for life. My edition is the Folio Society one, though I hope to get myself a 19th century set soon.
This is my favorite book of all time, so of course it would have to be number one. If you can’t understand why this work would be my favorite, just read the first paragraph. If you can’t understand after that, my friend, I can’t reach you. As for this edition, Kent’s illustrations after the manner of wood engravings are inky and soaked and some of the most beautiful in the history of book illustration.
The first paragraph:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
I’ve told you mine. Now you tell me yours.