Due to unforeseen circumstances, we will be closed Friday, May 20th and Saturday May 21st.
We will be open again during our regular hours on Friday, May 27th and Saturday, May 28th.
We are buying books again! But very selectively. If you have older fiction from the 1920s to the 1960s, in very good condition, clean, and in dust jacket we can take a look. As always, we need classics. Antique books have to be judged a bit differently. We can only offer credit for good books that are also a little too common. We cannot take best sellers, book club editions, topical books that are out of date, old text books, or books in less than very good condition.
Vincent McCaffrey’s Posts on Books & Bookselling
So, it begins.
This is the first draft of a declaration of independence—of a sort. Much like the novel that spawned it, an odd sort of novel, this declaration is not of the usual kind. It is intended to be made not to a public, but to yourself. How well you keep to its aims is your own concern. No one else need know how you failed or succeeded. But if you are sympathetic to the cause, please make suggestions for improvements to help make such a project work. And don’t hesitate to spread the word.
It’s up to you, as it always is and was. This is not to say that you have no alternative. I know many book lovers who would not be interested in anything of the sort. They are fine with the fungible texts of tablets, and cheap paperbacks, and don’t think there is any worry over being told not to read one thing or another, or, worse, they believe they actually need such guidance. If the library no longer stocks To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s for the best. They’ve heard it was a problematic story and might not have even been written by the supposed author. There’s plenty left to read without getting all hot and bothered over Henry Miller or even Mark Twain. Mark Twain had his flaws too. And Margaret Mitchell—bah! I have seen many a used copy of Gone with the Wind come in the shop that was only read part way. It’s only right that the literature changes with the times, is it not? Beowulf and Chaucer and Shakespeare are artifacts. What do they know about our modern world? What do they know about a digital universe? And besides, maybe we can correct those texts now and rid them of their bigotry, sexism and prejudice. They are not perfect either, you know? Too many words.
But for those happy few willing to give it a go, I hereby propose a new resolution. Resolution 451. read more…
My favorite new website is most extraordinary in so many ways that a biblio-besotted Robert Browning would have to do it justice. But this is just me. I’ll do what I can. . . . In truth, it’s what I have been doing for my entire life: making note and taking care of the wonderful books that are forgotten in this age of hype. I’ll even credit a few of the authors who were once hyped but since forgotten and deserve to be remembered yet. By ‘deserve’ I mean, they earned it, not that I have bestowed upon them some special status of my own.
As examples of the latter, take the fine work of Maine author, Robert P. Tristram Coffin. He won the Pulitzer prize–twice–and is not read today for either his prose or poetry. But his Yankee Coast is a wonder in a treasure chest of such work. Or, take Kenneth Roberts, another Down East author I discovered by the good services of a librarian when I was 12. His novels were hugely successful, an excellent selection of historical fact worked into a fabric of fiction but my favorite of his then and now was his autobiography I Wanted to Write, which is a hard find even with all the copies of his bestsellers still to be found in every church sale. read more…
People ask me for book recommendations quite frequently and I have half a dozen ways of putting them off to avoid the matter, usually resorting to some commonly accepted classic but occasionally offering something that I like myself. This last thing is a problem for a small bookseller. Typically I don’t have a copy of a book I would recommend because I’ve already done that too recently and haven’t had time to restock the shelf. But worse. too often my taste in letters does not match that of the customer. When I later ask, ‘How did you like it?’ and they answer, ‘It was okay.’ it’s a dagger in my bookseller’s heart.
These are unusual times and I have taken the chance here to recommend some books. They are all easily available at biblio.com or abebooks.com and if you research a title for just a few minutes at goodreads.com you will likely eliminate any clunkers. read more…
Booksellers are a lot like actors. It is a cliche that actors will too often assume they are capable of the accomplishments of the characters they portray and come to believe that they know what a character actually felt. Booksellers often see themselves as possessing the wisdom that is in the books they sell, whereas they only possess the books. The playacting of children is in many ways a rehearsal for the actions of adults. The empathy felt by the reader will often extend into everyday life. That is the power of books, just as it is the wonder felt by an audience in suspended disbelief watching a portrayal in a movie or on the stage.
Should an actor hold back then, in their enactment of evil? Will the psychopath they impersonate possibly inspire someone in the audience to act out something similar? Should a bookseller sell a book that they deem to be wrong? There is obviously much nuance here to consider before judgment. Answering the question based on a simplistic presentation of the question, before considering the parts, is as shallow an understanding as the bookseller presuming they own the wisdom that is on their shelves. read more…
Opening a bookshop is akin, in some minds (my own, for instance), to opening a show—a sheerly theatrical event. There is no chance in hell that you will make much in the way of profit. There is a very slim chance of it succeeding longer than the requisite three year term limit for most new businesses. It is done out of hubris. Because you can. And you must.
I have just done this again for the fourth time and can’t help recalling the first attempt in 1975. That one took twenty-eight years to fail, but not for lack of trying. (We did almost everything the wrong way and to a fault.) The second, opened while the first was still wrangling with reality, lasted ten years but only five of those under my own tutelage. The third opened shortly after the first was forced to close and lasted less than a year before we were burned out by the angry gods who had thought, I suppose, that they were rid of us. Now the fourth. . . . Perhaps that should be four and a half. I am still proud enough of my pushcart bookshop—an open air proto-bookshop—and the roughly three years spent on the streets of Boston selling odd books and magazines. That was truly fine. But I certainly don’t count the on-line thing that I still pursue to this day—a sort of robot bookshop—a pretend bookshop—a pretense of a bookshop—a mere pretext for making a little needed income out of our time and sweat and the books we have, that is like a plane with one wing and only capable of flight in the unreal ether of the internet. We do sell books there but no one actually browses. That place is found by a sorting and accumulation of zeros and ones in an instant gratification of desire. Hardly a browse. With the rise of the robot sex partner I feel a bit queasy with the sense that I am in a related business. read more…
Our second Saturday was more like what I imagine and hope most will be. Before, after, and between sales I had time to do a bit of cataloguing, some straightening of shelves, and a little cleaning. It is important to me that this be the way it works. No need to rush. I had enough of that on Newbury Street when, even on slow says, all the customers we did have would come in waves. It’s actually possible to have a conversation in our little barn in Lee. And to have a second thought. When asked for an author I don’t know, I can use the plastic and digital marvels of the twenty-first century while sitting in this eighteenth century post and beam, and learn something new.
One customer asked about a novel he remembered fondly from his youth that might be called ‘Come Spring.’ He told me it concerned early settlers on the coast of Maine. I looked that up on the magic screen and discovered there were many novels with those words in the title but only one that fit, written by the fine but sadly neglected author, Ben Ames Williams. Williams I knew. He was a favorite in my own youth, but I had never read Come Spring. read more…
This portion of the website is devoted to the authors I love. There are hundreds in all (some are brief affairs and others life long romances), and the project will take some time to finish. Writers will be added and then annotated as I can find the time and in some measure of the degree of my passion. They’ll be kept in alphabetical order to avoid decisions about whom I love the most–but you must understand that Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and Victor Hugo are sufficient proof to me that the human heart is big enough to love more than one. Making lists is easy. The annotation will take the most effort over time because I will want to say just what it is that makes these authors so special to me. So, please be patient. I am compiling a separate list elsewhere on this site for my favorite books under the heading ‘Good Books’. That will also be the venue for the many singularly fine books by authors who wrote little else.
wandering amidst the ossuary glossary
A recent rifling of old notes for A Republic of Books turns up the sobering fact that the project is over a dozen years old. I was as unsure at the beginning if it should be told as a sort of history of my bookshop or a fiction based on that small adventure, as I was concerning what article to use, ‘A’ or ‘The’ in the title. A fiction won out because of my own lack of courage, I think, as much as my inability to coalesce the facts of the matter in a way that fairly represented history and might still entertain. The sordid detail of business failure is fairly common and, I think, for the most part boring. Business success is easier to describe for the fact that the truth, beyond the hard work and persistence and the some of creativity, is always speculative, mere luck, and thus more thrilling. Besides, the failure of the bookshop was not the story at all. It was the death of the book itself that concerned me.
The project was begun on 3 x 5 index cards in 2004 as I played with other ideas concerning the demise of books that were to become the novel Hound. I wrote in brief about a few of the authors and titles I loved with comments for examples. These squibs were later transferred to my web site, which was then in need of copy. The book squibs have been much expanded upon since and were offered for reference to titles mentioned in the (somewhat) completed book. They are offered here in much the same spirit.
Jane Austen. 1775 to 1817. An English novelist who worked outside of any ordination or proscribed expectation other than her own sense of what was right and what might entertain and thus created a splendid but too small body of work. I know a lot of very literate guys who have never read Jane Austen. A sad thing. She understands men as well as any: Persuasion; Sense and Sensibility; Emma; Pride and Prejudice; Mansfield Park, are all great novels–but I am partial to Persuasion.
H. E. Bates. (Herbert Ernest). 1905 to 1974. If he had not fabricated My Uncle Silas, God would have done it. Love for Lydia and The Darling Buds of May are other well know works. Not great perhaps but too good to miss. His essays of life in Northamptonshire had me wanting to move to England. All of his short stories have the whiff of autobiography about them, and you can’t help but wish you had known him.
James Boswell. 1740 to 1795. It is not that the pupil outshone the master, but that genius is always unique: London Journal; A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides; Life of Samuel Johnson. Notwithstanding all the lesser efforts of the likes of Plutarch and Vasari, Boswell created modern biography by writing as much about himself as his subjects. His narcissistic understanding of his world and others is the template for modern literature as well.
Anton Chekhov. 1860 to 1904. You must remember that he was once a child, a boy, a young man. He bled. He shed a tear. The control he flaunts in his writing is illusion. The rabbits are not in his hat but his head. Read anything, but avoid the canon until the last. The difference between the Constance Garnett and the Robert Payne translations makes me wish I could read Russian.
Joseph Conrad (Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzenioski). 1857 to 1924. Polish born and raised, a merchant seaman, fluent in French, who became British subject and wrote in his third language: Youth (a narrative originally published with Heart of Darkness and The end of the Tether); Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands; Typhoon; Secret Agent; anything else–especially the short stories.
Charles Dickens. 1812 to 1870. Understood his readers better than himself, facilely playing with emotions like jealousy and avarice, love and hate, in a prose by turns picaresque or fawning, maudlin or sentimental but aways colorful and paced. He was a great storyteller and a master of caricature, even when his understanding of character failed him. His much vaunted social criticism (that by modern thinkers) is simplistic at best, but easily fits to the shallow politics of the moment. Great Expectations and Bleak House may be his best, and Little Dorrit and Tale of Two Cities his worst, but every damned one of them is readable, engaging, entertaining and memorable. Because his own life was so tumultuous, methinks he deserves a novel about himself.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky. 1821 to 188. He is the Caravaggio of authors. I read him first in 1965, the gift of a friend when about to leave home, and the chiaroscuro of his work overpowered my own sense of light and dark, a difficult year in all. His sense of psychology is truer than Freud or Jung for being observed without pretense. Another author that makes me wish I could read Russian. I’ve liked The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment the most—enough to read them twice.
Arthur Conan Doyle. 1859 to 1830. His accomplishment was the unintended consequences of curiosity and persistence: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. His chemistry is often copied but seldom achieved. He was a man, after all, who believed it fairies and spirits and ghosts. I think it was the boy in him that wrote the better stuff.
Patrick Leigh Fermor. 1915 to 2011. English-Irish wanderer, school drop-out, scholar and true war hero: A Time of Gifts; Between Woods and Water; Mani; Roumeli; and just about anything else. His writing is Promethean and unbounded.
David Hackett Fischer. 1935 to present. One of a few great historians in our age of computer driven rehash. Albion’s Seed, Champlain’s Dream, Paul Revere’s Ride, and Washington’s Crossing, make our founding understandable and should be read by everyone who gives a damn.
Robert Frost. 1874 to 1963. This poet of the laboring soul, and the rural life is happily a product of a mill town (Lawrence, Massachusetts) who worked a New Hampshire farm long enough to find the rock where his talent was hidden. The greatest American poet, for all his fame, is under appreciated for being over-exposed (Yeats has a similar problem). Frost’s problem from the first was that he took himself seriously and wanted to be the best. His work is studied, and in an age when we are taught that’ anyone can be a poet’ his sin is the simple excellence of what he wrote. As a friend pointed out to me recently, you can take many of his works and turn them into movies for both their visual impact and story content: North of Boston; Mountain Interval; Further Range—Heck, just get a copy of The Complete Poems.
Norma Lorre Goodrich. 1917 to 2006. The first of her books, Medieval Myths, I read at the Brattleboro Public Library in 1966. A lifetime ago. Her research on myth and heroes was pathbreaking. Her revelations about King Arthur are still unappreciated, made him human, and set them in the context of his time. She understood the tapestry of the early medieval ages better, to my mind, than anyone has and is the greatest historian most readers know little about. But she went about her life in a private manner, teaching, cultivating her garden in Vermont, not cultivating the sort of attention that appealed to the television age while ignoring the rebuff of English and French scholars who thought she was too American for lack of a better needle. My hope is that others will follow in her wake.
Robert Graves. 1895 to 1985. The most extraordinary writer of his time in too many ways to recount. Brave and foolhardy, a henpecked coward, a scholar, a poet and a hack—a genius. I, Claudius; Count Belisarius; Sergeant Lamb; The Greek Myths—the range is prodigious and the prose poetic, but start with Good-bye To All That to know the man.
Victor Davis Hansen. 1953 to present. Farmer, historian, classicist. Relating actual classical history to the present is verboten in the modern University, where only interpretation through a Marxian dialectic is acceptable. Hansen’s viewpoint as a farmer is especially unique. Warfare and Agriculture, Who Killed Homer, The Soul of Battle, A War Like No Other, The Savior Generals, are superb, and there is more!
Robert Heinlein. 1907 to 1988. Science Fiction when it was fun. For those who do not understand the world of difference between prejudice and bigotry, Heinlein may be a bitter cup of coffee, but he was one of the best, most innovative and creative writers in a genre which quickly ages and often ages badly. My favorite of his works are: The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress; Time Enough For Love; and naturally for an old baby boomer like me, Stranger In A Strange Land.
Ernest Hemingway. 1899 to 1961. There is so much to dislike about the man from afar–read the collected short stories and think again. He changed the literature of a century—for better or worse—but for a reason. A Moveable Feast is one of the greatest of memoirs, and captures much of the romance he so eschewed in his life.
Claire Huffaker. 1926 to 1990. Wrote many good stories but his best, and a great favorite, is The Cowboy and the Cossack. His own story might have been better if he had avoided Hollywood.
Victor Hugo. 1802 to 1885. French (not his fault) poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, historian and unwitting namesake of a boulevard in Paris which was borrowed by a small bookshop in Boston with pretensions: Les Miserables (perhaps the great novel yet written); Notre Dame de Paris; Ninety Three; Toilers of the Sea; and almost anything else.
Sarah Orne Jewett. 1849 to 1909. Like Austen before her, an independent voice of unique quality and sweet perception. Her Maine characters read like the people they were. Forever underrated except by those who have read her. The Country of the Pointed Firs; Deephaven; A Country Doctor.
Elmer Kelton. 1926 to 2009. A newspaperman and rancher and a fine and possibly great author of the ‘western’ genre made American. A Texan in every regard, my only wish is that he had written more about himself. His characters are not given to navel musings. His prose is hard and sturdy and often beautiful of line. He writes about the things that matter. My favorites are: The Time It Never Rained; Buffalo Wagons; and The Day the Cowboys Quit, and though the shorter books reflect the constraints of a man who was earning his living elsewise, they are all true to the best of the genre.
Rudyard Kipling. 1865 to 1936. Born in Bombay and raised in India and England. Kipling’s reputation has born the weight of being the greatest poet of his time; but he must be appreciated for his prose as well. As he entered the Twentieth century the wrongheaded criticism of those who place politics above all shadowed an accomplishment which has finally outlasted his detractors and is alive and still fabulous today: Kim; Collected Poems; Rikki-Tikki-Tavi; Plain Tales from the Hills; Just So Stories; Phantom Rickshaw; and almost anything else.
C. S. Lewis (Clive Staples). 1898 to 1963. Christian apologist, theologian, literary essayist, novelist, poet, teacher. As the Twentieth Century tide passes away, he remains. A truly modest man. One of the few figures of his age who can be read and relished without embarrassment. His books are all short, and yet they seem unhurried. The poetry is clear in all that he wrote. The Abolition of Man is my favorite. Mere Christianity may have had the greatest impact, but given the numbers who have read The Chronicles of Narnia, I suspect that there is an undercurrent that may prove more important.
Frederick Manfred. 1912 to 1994. A rough American iconoclast, novelist, and Siouxland historian, and friend. His voice is so strong in his work that I find myself thinking from one to the other as if they are all of a quilt: Conquering Horse; Lord Grizzly, Scarlet Plume; King of Spade; Riders of Judgement.
David McCullough. 1933 to present. Indefatigable historian of America and its people, a superb writer, whose aim is to make of history the sort of narrative anyone might read and know better for themselves. The Great Bridge, Path Between the Seas, Truman, and John Adams are my favorites
Richard McKenna. 1913 to 1964. I had only discovered him the year before he died, and then only in the short story Hunter Come Home—but what a story! Reading the best seller The Sand Pebbles after that was a disappointment to a mind too young to appreciate the subtle and darker background to such an adventure story. The short story collection, Casey Agonistes is terrific, and many of the stories left unpublished saw print after he died. He was a sailor for most of his life, and had he lived longer, we might have known so much more about the nature of human folly.
John McPhee. 1931 – present. He is reason enough for The New Yorker to have survived beyond the tenures of Ross and Shawn. His Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, and Rising From the Plains are as much about the geology of the heart as they are about the West.
Herman Melville. 1819 to 1891. Born and died in New York, but thankfully he did not spend too much time there in between. His was in search of some modest understanding of the human soul. What he found was profligate : Moby Dick (Yes!); The Piazza Tales; White Jacket; Omoo; Bartleby the Scrivener; and much else, but the tale of the white whale is at the heart of the man.
H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken). 1880 to 1956. The Baltimore son. The patron saint of all newspapermen and the greatest critic of American society and culture (other than George Carlin, I suppose). He was a prose stylist—a craftsman with words who often stepped over the line into art. The first thing of his I read, the first of the Prejudices volumes, seemed short enough for a high school book report. How was I to know there was a lifetime of good stuff attached? Read the collected Prejudices; Treatise on the Gods; Happy Days; Newspaper Days; Heathen Days; and then the rest.
Joseph Mitchell. 1908 to 1996. The more recently issued anthology, Up in The Old Hotel contains several of his best works: McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, Old Mr. Flood, The Bottom of the Harbor, and Joe Gould’s Secret, all of which appeared in The New Yorker during its golden age. The dry chronicler of an age as told at street level. His was the New York I first found.
Richard Mitchell. 1929 to 2002. The Underground Grammarian. Many of us who received the newsletter did not understand The Gift of Fire we had. The coherence of it when rereading essays we had liked by themselves becomes more powerful than the words—something he might have enjoyed.
Michel de Montaigne. 1533 to 1592. Essayist, memoirist, historian, philosopher. Takes getting used to. He is at once too frank and too subtle. Just don’t try to read him all at once.
Eric Newby. 1919 to 2006. Another fabulous Englishman who was born to wander, and Wanda. Like his contemporary Fermor, he took a delight in life that is infectious and inspiring: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush; Slowly Down the Ganges; Love and War in the Apennines (aka, When the Snows Come they Will Take You Away).
Robert Nozick. 1938 to 2002. Philosopher, teacher, and friend. A difficult read. Far easier to listen to. Anarchy State and Utopia took me a year to finish. Philosophical Explanations did not explain enough to my untutored mind. The Examined Life is a far easier approach to his thinking. Most importantly, whatever our disagreements were concerning natural law, he believed in civilization and the human reach toward civility.
Flannery O’Connor. 1925 to 1964. Born and died in Georgia. Forget the ‘Southern Gothic’ crap and listen to what she’s trying to tell you—dark, disturbing, and true: The Violent Bear it Away; A Good Man is Heard to Find; Everything That Rises Must Converge; but NOT Wise Blood (not until you have read the others).
George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair).1903 to 1950. Must be ranked as one of the four or five greatest authors of the twentieth century by any standard of style, content, and impact. One of the few socialist writers, along with Shaw and Hugo, who avoided making a religion of their politics: Burmese Days; Animal Farm; Nineteen Eighty-Four; Down and Out in Paris and London; Homage to Catalonia; The Road to Wiggin Pier; are my favorites
William Alexander Percy. 1885 to 1942. A unique character—poet, planter, and lawyer—I compare him in mind to Thoreau for being brilliant, wise, bigoted, and foolish, greathearted, niggardly, and a beautiful writer. His Collected Poems would be enough for this, but Lanterns on the Levee is a classic unlike any other for its postbellum portrait of the Mississippi Delta country and its people at a time now gone with the great flood of 1927.
Ayn Rand (Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum). 1905 to 1982. Playwright, novelist, essayist, philosopher. One of the most engaging and thoughtful authors of the twentieth century, Rand’s egocentric idealism provokes ugly reaction from the religious left as well as the hidebound right, which has resulted in an underestimation of her work as an artist and prose stylist: Atlas Shrugged; The Fountainhead; We The Living; and the many provocative essays.
Rafael Sabatini. 1875 to 1950. A sense of the operatic infuses all of Sabatini’s work, (he was raised in it) and if a flare for the dramatic does not tickle your cockles then you will not like him–but a fifteen year old boy trapped in his bed room on a cold winter’s night trying to avoid his homework could find no better escape–nor a fifty year old office bound day dreamer: Scaramouche; Captain Blood; and after them, almost anything else for sheer entertainment.
Michael Shaara. 1928 to 1988. Had a style of his own making and found its perfect subject in The Killer Angels, which is near sublime, if hell on earth can ever be that. But though there are other good works, he died too soon. Still, it’s good for us he liked baseball.
Nevil Shute (Nevil Shute Norway). 1899 to 1960. Probably the writer who has influenced me the most by example, though he seldom used those ten penny words I like to play with and I would never know what to say to him over a beer at the pub down the road from the great aerodrome. Like Conan Doyle, he sometimes played with ideas of the supernatural, but most of his work is as clear eyed and perceptive as the engineer and pilot he was: Trustee from the Toolroom; A Town Like Alice; On The Beach; Round the Bend; No Highway; Pastoral; Slide Rule, I think are the best.
Henryk Sienkiewicz. 1846 to 1916. Poland’s Tolstoy, but with an even greater sense of history and broader understanding of destiny: With Fire and Sword; The Deluge; Fire on the Steppe. My Anglocentric perception of history is natural for being the source of the language I use to think, speak and write, but Sienkiewicz opens the door to another realm of history and the driving forces of human kind.
Adam Smith, 1723 to 1790, was a synergist. From the ethics inherent in all human action, and individual interaction, Smith realizes the moral foundation of government and the commerce of whole countries. But it is in his understanding of human beings that he discovers insight into the working of nations. The lovely conceit of Adam Smith, or any good philosopher for that matter, is that things matter, and that the individual must care that they do. The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn. 1918 to 2008. Another of the few who stood athwart the Twentieth Century and bid a stop to the carnage. Novelist, memoirist, philosopher, moralist, storyteller. I have read only the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago and that alone would be sufficient to make him one of the greatest authors of his time. So word-rich and so Russian, I had to stop again and again to comprehend the fullness of the picture he had drawn in the detail, as much as the characters. (I haven’t had courage enough to continue, but I will, if time permits) I wish I could understand the poetry of the words in Russian, as it is often spoken of by others. However, the shorter works are all fine as well and more easily accessible.
Robert Louis Stevenson. 1850 to 1894. Invalid Scottish novelist and poet who made a liar of all those writing teachers who tell you to only write about what you know. If you’re a genius you can write what you want: Kidnapped; Treasure Island; The Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; as well as, New Arabian Nights; A Child’s Garden of Verses, and most everything else not tinkered with by others.
Henry David Thoreau. 1817 to 1862. Born and died in Concord. Essayist, prose poet, and pencil pusher. Proof that even a philosophical snot can write clear and beautiful prose: Walden; A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Civil Disobedience; Cape Cod; The Maine Woods; and almost everything else.
Alexis de Tocqueville. 1805 to 1859. Modern political philosophy seldom has the daring, the insight, the wisdom, or the true purpose of this still very readable portrait of what America was and what it was destined to become, both good and bad. Democracy in America.
J. R. R. Tolkien (John Ronald Reuel). 1892 to 1973. Teacher, philologist, storyteller. He will be one of the few Twentieth Century authors still read a century from now, if Saoron can be vanquished. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy deserve all their credit. We have been overwhelmed by the pyrotechnics of the films, but the books remain, quieter, and gorgeous to read.
Leo (Lev Nikolayevich) Tolstoy. 1828 to 1910. With Victor Hugo, the greatest of novelists. A month of your life spent reading War and Peace (don’t read it any faster), is a month gained. Where Dostoyesky overtly plumbed the psychology of character, Tolstoy chronicles the history of the person to understand the ultimate action. Anna Karenina lives like a part of your family not spoken of. But don’t miss the shorter novellas and his autobiographical sketches.
Anthony Trollope. 1815 to 1882. English novelist. His ‘chronicles of Barsetshire’ (The Warden; Barchester Towers; Doctor Thorne; Framely Parsonage; The Small House at Allington; Last Chronical of Barset) come as close to rivaling the genius of Jane Austen as anything else; his ‘Palliser’ series (Can You Forgive Her?; Phineas Finn; The Eustace Diamonds; Phineas Redux; The Prime Minister; The Dukes Children) capture England in its prime in a way mere history cannot. He was a workman of a writer who weighed the sturdiness of his work first (much like Nevil Shute) but often wandered into exquisite portraiture and near perfect prose.
Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens). 1835 to 1910. Like Shakespeare, the greatness of his achievement makes it difficult to include him in any list, and alike Shakespeare, another man wrote his work. His Life on the Mississippi has become the life of a nation. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is often cited as his greatest but The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is one of the first books I read, and then read again. And his short stories are magnificent. He is not a poet, as Shakespeare was, but he is a craftsman for the ages.
Cornelius Weygandt. 1871 to 1957 Teacher. Historian. Poet. Almost forgotten now. But not quite. Not yet, by God! Not so long as someone might read The White Hills, The Red Hills, A Passing America, On the Edge of Evening, or any of a dozen works worth the time, and there are still a few old booksellers to keep him on the shelves. One of the many fine writers Wikipedia has yet to discover.
Walt Whitman. 1819 to 1892. American poetry came of age with him. His free verse style did not ruin a discipline of the ages but remade it. His Leaves of Grass is still a wonder to read.
E. B. White (Elwyn Brooks). 1899 to 1985. His essays made The New Yorker what it became in its golden age. One Man’s Meat tells some of that and more. Avoid the Elements of Style and go right to Charlotte’s Web, or Second Tree from the Corner, Points of My Compass, or if you are hankering for a visit to the city, Here is New York.
Tom Wolfe (Thomas Kennerly Wolfe). 1931 to 1918. Might be the finest writer of his time. I feel too close to him to be sure. But I am most thankful that he turned to writing novels. The sheer and glorious pyrotechnics of Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-flake Streamline Baby; Electric Cool-aid Acid Test; Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, became the more deeply considered The Right Stuff; The Painted Word; From Bauhaus to Our House. The social critique of his novels is worthy of a modern Trollope but with a larger sense of humor.
William Butler Yeats.1865 to 1939. It is notable that he is the one Irish poet that the English want to claim. I recommend the Complete Poems collection because though his work evolved through his life, there is mere greatness in almost every period.
There are more to come as time permits.