No need to play the old “Desert Island” -game anymore, now is there? We are living it now, dear people. Too late to make lists about people you’d pick to accompany your hypothetic séjour at a remote island. Look around you. Sorry. That’s what you’re stuck with until at least about June.*
It is, of course, absolutely impossible to pick favourites amongst books. I am not very good with the popular concept of monthly book stack posts, because my reading habits are very haphazard and I usually have many books going on at the same time – some which I never finish, or return to at a later point, you know. I cannot measure or synchronise my actual reading with a calendar.
If I were to choose five books that I have already read to take with me to wherever for comfort and entertainment, I would very possibly pick the following five. You will notice that they are all so called modern classics (there’s no Dickens, no Tolstoy, no Ancient Greek poets) and they are, save for one, written by brilliant American women with independent minds.
This is not a list of my all time best books ever – it’s merely a stack of five always keep going back to. I would recommend each of these for everyone.
Each is photographed with Byredo’s hand-sanitiser and hand cream, which are fast becoming as indispensable for the survival of humanity as literature.
Of course everything by Joyce Carol Oates is delightful, but Blonde is spectacular. It is a reinvention of Marilyn Monroe’s life, from birth to death. While Blonde is fiction, albeit based on real life events, though filtered for artistic purposes, it will be the only version of Monroe’s tragic life you’ll ever believe. It is truly breathtakingly amazing, and if you have not read Oates before, this is a very good one to start with.
Also, depending on the edition, Blonde is about 700 pages long. Shudder-inducing at normal times, a glimmer of hope these days, eh?
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live” is the opening sentence of Joan Didion’s The White Album and one of the frequently quoted literary sentences in the last couple of decades. Everybody wants to acquire Didion’s distinct writing style and a smidgen of her overall coolness.
Didion started as a journalist in the 60s, covering politics, current affairs, fashion and culture. She became, and still is, America’s top novelist, memoirist and essayist. She hung out with the Doors, prepared post-gig cocktails to Janis Joplin at the house parties she used to throw with her husband, and lost her friend Sharon Tate in the Manson family rampage in 1969. She’s 85, lives and writes in New York and there’s a documentary about her on Netflix called The Center Will Not Hold, directed by her nephew in 2017. (Watch it)
The White Album is fabulous and covers everything you need to know in life, including tips on how to pack for trips.
Also Didion has the most useful life hacks:
“I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day. I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps.”
Oh, Fran Lebowitz, how do I love thee. The Reader is a combination of her two bestsellers Metropolitan Life and Social Studies and is thus a collection of essays. I read this for laughs, for she is truly very funny, in an acerbic way (there is no other way to be truly funny).
There are plenty of her appearances in various NYC talk shows for you to kill time and be entertained. Herewith some of the best corona-appropriate advise from The Reader:
- Telling someone they look healthy isn’t a compliment – it’s a second opinion.
- There is no such thing as inner peace. There is only nervousness or death. Any attempt to prove otherwise constitutes unacceptable behavior.
- People have been cooking and eating for thousands of years, so if you are the very first to have thought of adding fresh lime juice to scalloped potatoes try to understand that there must be a reason for this.
- As one whose taste in mental states has always run largely towards the coma, I have very little patience with the current craze of self-awareness. I am already far too well acquainted with how I feel and frankly, given the choice, I would not. Anyone who is troubled by the inability to feel his or her own feelings is more than welcome to feel mine.
- Despite whatever touch of colour and caprice they might indeed impart, I will never, never, never embellish my personal written correspondence with troll little crayoned drawings.
- Violet will be a good colour for hair just about the same time that brunette becomes a good colour for flowers.
I am undecided which I like more: Zadie Smith’s novels or essays. Probably essays. Feel Free is a recent collection. It’s not a book to read in one sitting – I like to come back every now and then, depending a bit on what I’m after at any given time.
Not only is Smith a brilliant writer and storyteller, she’s also a beautiful thinker. If you are bored out of your skull and want to distract yourself for an hour or so, I can recommend the following podcasts with Zadie Smith in which she discusses her reading and writing habits and life more generally:
Touré Show episode 13: Zadie Smith – How to be Free (from 18 February 2018)
92Y Talks: Zadie Smith with Jennifer Egan: Grand Union, recorded in New York on December 5, 2019.
Smith is famously a luddite and very particular about her time (reason/consequence). She’s a superstar writer who has been somewhat reluctant about the emergence of much-publicized writer’s lifestyle (see Instagram for references), but still makes the appearance or two every now and then, as opposed to the last author of today…
All of you will have read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and that’s how it should be. I re-read it usually at Christmas (I got my first copy of the book at Christmas in 1993) and it does not get old. It does not. I have read countless copycat campus-dramas imitating the original, but no cigar.
Tartt has written exactly three bestselling novels (though who knows how many under possible pseudonyms, although she did say that “Everything takes me longer than I expect. It’s the sad truth about life.“) and is notoriously private – apart from PR shots, there is basically no photographic evidence of one of the world’s most famous and successful authors. During the Goldfinch publicity tour she said she had written large parts of the book at the New York City library, without anyone bothering her.
I find this astonishing and reassuring at equal measure.
I don’t need to say anything about The Secret History obviously as you have all read it, except that read it again.
*This depends a bit where you are stuck in, obviously.