Timeless books to restore your faith in the imagination and/or the human spirit chosen by KCRW’s Bookworm, Michael Silverblatt.
The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon (Penguin)
The intimacies of tenth century Japanese court life are so beautiful, secretive, naughty and delicate — who could expect such graceful prose describing the lining of a kimono or a love poem sent by a departed lover? This diary is one of the absolutely necessary reading experiences. You will never forget it. Gossip and shopping lists from a thousand years ago!
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (Picador)
I blundered on this book in its first edition in 1980. Transcendent, transcendental (in the metaphysical sense) and haunting, it’s the story of two little girls on an adventure that brings one of them to an understanding of the nature of existence. The paragraph in which the girls witness the formation of crystals is so beautiful you may have to cry or scream.
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro (Vintage)
This year’s Nobelist’s greatest novel. He’s the first claustrophobic writer to find a way out of Kafka’s exit-less labyrinths. This book felt like it was trying to take the top of my head off. It kept surprising me and shocking me over and over again. I had to keep asking “How did he do that?”
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (Vintage)
You get the feeling that everything you have to know about race and sex is buried in the paralysis at the center of this heartbreaking work.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (any edition)
I stayed away from this classic for years until I read about it in Bataille’s Literature and Evil. Evil? Yes, absolutely. The poetic and dark Bronte has written one of the scariest books about passion in literature.
Watt by Samuel Beckett (Grove Press)
Along with “The Pickwick Papers,” the funniest work of fiction I know. Yes, I mean it, funniest. Laugh out loud funny. Wait in particular to read about Watt’s speculations about how Mr. Knott’s dogs get fed.
I had the privilege of meeting Paule Marshall the author of this classic novel of the African American urban experience. The novel’s intensity and beauty had taken my breath away, the writer brought me back to my senses. I’ve read all her books; this one has pride of place.
Just read it. I keep finding comparisons to this or that novel or novelist, but really there’s nothing like it. Nothing else mattered when I was reading it.
The Collected Stories by Grace Paley (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
I was introduced to the work of Grace Paley when there was only one volume: “The Little Disturbances of Man.” She wrote three books of stories, all of them are here. Her work is truthful and scrappy and political, emotional, poetic and funny. The very first story, “Goodbye and Good Luck,” makes so much magic out of ordinary speech, you will be reading it for the rest of your life. Same with so many of her stories. We need her back.
I can’t say it in a crowded open space, but I love this book even more than “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” I completely fell in love with its vision of love among our grandparents. If you loved your grandma as much as I loved mine you have to read it. I think it is García Márquez’s supreme achievement
John Ashbery, Collected Poems 1956-1987 and Collected Poems 1991-2000 (Library of America)
When John Ashbery died this year at age 90, he left behind a colossal body of work the majority of it contained in these two majestic volumes. Is there anyone who reads poetry who can be without these books? I also recommend the charming biography of Ashbery’s early life, “The Songs We Know the Best” by Karin Roffman.