My greatest accomplishment of this holiday so far has been to move my books from the floor to shelves. I have now filled my shelf space, which means I will either have to get over my addiction to Abebooks or start giving some away (a decision which was forced on me a few weeks ago when I had a book stolen from a pub – an event which must have involved one of the few people with a shared interest in Kierkegaard’s philosophy and petty theft). Nonetheless the move was a success; it not only removed an obstructive and frankly ominous ziggurat of unread tomes from the middle of my room, but gave me a chance to reflect on the titles I most value.
Lord Byron, Don Juan
I have this in a battered ‘70s paperback with a faded detail from a Delacroix painting on the cover. Its yellow pages immediately bring me back to where I read it: in a hostel room in rural southern Africa, where I was confined by illness for several days. With little company, as I was travelling alone, I had nothing else to occupy myself. It proved to be the perfect distraction: Byron’s tale flings its hero across the globe between alluring, but powerful, women. The author’s comically ingenious invention is to make Don Juan not a serial seducer, but serially seduced. His verse is not always polished or beautiful, but has a breathless verve and willingness to revel in its own limitations (he refuses in the third stanza to list any more French heroes because there are ‘not at all adapted to my rhymes’) which makes it timelessly readable.
Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars
Duffy’s 1992 history of ‘Traditional Religion in England 1400–1580’ is a classic of revisionism. Its subtitle might sound dry, but Duffy’s prose reveals the splendour and depth of piety which defined much pre-Reformation worship. He explores how much was lost when Henry VIII looted the thousands of monasteries and parish churches which were the centre of so many people’s social and spiritual lives. My edition is replete with dozens of illustrations, including a stunning detail from a manuscript on its cover, but the most awe-inspiring images are found in the text itself, which brings life to pews and chancels which are now so often empty.
Oliver Sacks, Seeing Voices
Dr Sacks distinguished himself throughout his recently-concluded life as a writer of extraordinary empathy as well as scientific rigour, in a corpus of work which describes patients with a huge range of neurological conditions. In Seeing Voices he describes the deaf, not as people lacking a vital sense, but as their own community endowed with a wealth of shared experiences and, crucially, a language. Sacks describes sign languages’ richness which absolutely equals that of their spoken cousins. Grammatically, sign is far more complex than any spoken language given the far greater intricacy of a hand gesture to a spoken syllable, so that ‘LOOK-AT may be inflected to mean “stare”, “look at incessantly”, “gaze”, “watch”, “look for a long time”, or “look again and again” – and many other permutations, including combinations of the above.’ I have not quoted Sacks at his most elegant, but hope this captures something of his ability to observe disinterestedly and give voice to those who are so often silenced.
John Ashbery, Selected Poems
For me this book has become a kind of Bible: often carried around, but only partially read. I will often open it to a random page and am never sure whether I will find a short lyric or towering prose poem. Whatever I read behind the rather bizarre cover (a drawing of Ashbery hunched over his typewriter, merged in collage with typed manuscript and abstract streaks of blue and red), it is sure to unveil something of the mystical and alluring in the everyday. His style is easy to parody but hard to emulate, and while he is all too often labelled a ‘difficult’ poet, as Helen Vendler observes ‘plainness is his strongest weapon’. His best verse is both straight-talking and impossible to paraphrase, both concrete and ineffably vague:
Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?
Thomas A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
This is an extremely difficult book, not because of its language (which is limpid and direct in Robert Jeffrey’s translation), but because of its call to completely detact oneself from the material world’s allurements. It has appealed to a huge range of people since it was written in the 14th century, from Buddhist monks to Maggie Tulliver in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. Despite its unabashed commitment to the power of the Roman Catholic Eucharist, it has crossed denominational and religious boundaries, often in versions which censor references to transubstantiation. It owes its continuing power to Kempis’ unflinching belief in a world beyond the material, so that as social currents change it offers a critique of moral dejection which will be relevant as long as we are selfish and imperfect. ‘Those who are seeking comfort like capitalists betray themselves as being lovers of themselves, rather than of Christ… no one is richer, more powerful or more free than someone who has left self and everything else behind, to sit in the lowest place.’