Books for a desert island? What a lovely idea. I assume you don’t want simply classic works by authors that everyone reads. In that case my favorites are Austen, Flaubert and James. There are so many books and it’s so hard to choose, but if I had to make a short list of some more or less contemporary works (in no particular order) I would choose the following:
Giuseppe di Lampedusa “The Leopard.” A wonderful novel about a thoughtful Sicilian aristocrat living at the time of the unification of Italy, contemplating the end of his way of life. Of all the persons in modern fiction, Don Fabrizio is the one I would most like to be.
Phillip Roth “American Pastoral.” A profound mediation on the transformation of America from the 1940s-1960s. It is a deeply disturbing book and one that asks some very hard questions about what we have become.
Saul Bellow “Mr. Sammler’s Planet.” Probably not Bellow’s most loveable novel, but there is something about the character of Artur Sammler that speaks to me. His dyspeptic outlook on an America falling into moral chaos and disorder sounds very true.
Isaac Bashevis Singer “The Spinoza of Market Street” and “The Kabbalist of East Broadway.” Two very short, short stories. I wrote two books on Spinoza and Singer’s story, which in part is what set me off. These are humorous meditations on the power of human passion and its ability to make us act in the most unpredictable ways.
Iris Murdoch, “A Fairly Honorable Defeat.” I used to be a huge Murdoch fan, but have not reread any of her books for a while. This was her most nihilistic novel and one that I would very much like to teach (thought I haven’t found the opportunity as yet).
Don De Lillo, “Libra.” His fictionalized account of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald leading up to the assassination of JFK (“seven seconds that broke the back of the American century”). It’s hard to explain.
Truman Capote, “In Cold Blood.” I read this book in high school (as did virtually everyone I knew). I was flipping through the channels this summer and caught the last half hour or so of the film version (with Robert Blake) and decided to read the book again. It was instantly riveting. I know of no work that better explores the minds of true sociopathic murderers.
Anything by Elmore Leonard. Very tough. Very cool.
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