I am grateful to The Quarterly Conversation/Conversational Reading for letting me guest-post a review for NYRB Reading Week, even though I’m a ringer: I have been lucky enough to work with the press in various capacities since I first got obsessed with NYRBs in 2002 or 2003. (I now own 134 of the Classics.) You’ll be happy to hear that the folks at NYRB are as lovely as their book covers.
Here is the list, in alphabetical order, of my top ten favorite NYRB Classics. The next ten books down are great books too, and the ten after that, and etc., but these are ten I can no longer live without, not one of which I would have read without NYRB.
To avoid needless repetition, please cut and paste in your mind the following sentence into all ten descriptions below: “It passes the bounds of human understanding how good this book is.”
The Winners, by Julio Cortázar, tr. Elaine Kerrigan
Cortázar is well known for lesser books; this early novel is my favorite. A cross-section of Buenos Aires society wins a cruise in a lottery, and the opening section swirls among the different couples, families, and individuals at a café on shore, where they meet to await further instructions. Then they’re off on a mysterious ship to an unknown destination. Intricate, philosophical, and transcendent.
A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Combine a great story (a charming 18-year-old travels on foot across Europe, from Holland to Constantinople, in 1933), forty years of learning and reflection (the book came out in 1977), and the richest prose stylist in the language since Thomas Browne: the result is a travel book overflowing with magnificence. NYRB publishes the sequel, Between the Woods and the Water, which covers the second third of his journey; we all pray that Fermor, age 95, will finish volume 3 and bring us to Constantinople.
A High Wind in Jamaica, by Richard Hughes
The best book ever written about childhood, and descriptive powers as mighty as Faulkner’s without any of the difficulty. One of Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century; I wouldn’t have minded seeing it at #1.
The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson, tr. Thomas Teal
A six-year-old girl whose mother has died and her grandmother on a Scandinavian island. Like Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse—another book mourning the author’s mother—The Summer Book is a work of such beauty and perfect balance that to mention its glittering summer light makes it hard to believe it could be so dark, but to call it a book about grief and loss makes it hard to imagine it could be so bright and funny.
An African in Greenland, by Tété-Michel Kpomassie, tr. James Kirkup
A young man in Togo stumbles upon a book about Eskimos and vows to go to Greenland someday; it takes years, but he gets there. This is his absolutely winning memoir. One of the first NYRBs I bought on the basis of the cover and NYRB’s track record alone—a great discovery.
Sunflower, by Gyula Krúdy, tr. John Bátki
A Hungarian fever-dream of love and death amid mist-shrouded forests. The style may seem a little crazy at first, but let yourself go and this novel transports you like none other.
The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, by Álvaro Mutis, tr. Edith Grossman
It is impossible to describe this book and how good it is, especially the first three or four of the seven novellas it contains. It’s about a philosophical drifter and his adventures of life and sex and thought and the poetry in our souls that can never be written. Gabriel García Márquez calls Mutis “one of the greatest writers of our time”—Gabriel García Márquez, people!
Jakob von Gunten, by Robert Walser, tr. Christopher Middleton
Walser is slowly getting the fame he deserves, thanks in no small part to NYRB. This novel, about a young man at a school for servants, is the book on this list most likely to change not only your life but the person leading it. Here’s the opening: “One learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys of the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life. The instruction that we enjoy consists mainly in impressing patience and obedience upon ourselves, two qualities that promise little success, or none at all. Inward successes, yes. But what does one get from such as these?”
Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, by Sylvia Townsend Warner
The title of this book should be The Complete Mr. Fortune: it has nothing whatsoever to do with maggots. Warner’s two long stories about an inimitably gentle hero, a missionary who goes to “convert” an island “native” but is converted himself. Prose as refreshing as watching a baby play.
Riders in the Chariot, by Patrick White
Another discovery—I had never come anywhere near hearing of Patrick White, Australia’s Nobel Prize winner in literature. This book has an epigraph by Blake and lives up to it: one of the two most visionary novels I have ever read, and the most painterly. Gobs of radiant color streak through the world as you read it. The variety and interplay of the four main characters of the four parts are astonishing.
And, one honorable mention:
The Journal: 1837–1861, by Henry David Thoreau, ed. Damion Searls (me)
Not on the main list for obvious, favoritist reasons, but it shouldn’t go unrecommended just because I’m the recommender. Thoreau’s Journal is his life’s work, has some of his best and most appealing prose, and is one of the great life-companions you can find between book covers.
This post appeared as part of NYRB Reading Week and was written by Damion Searls. Searls is the author of What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going and the translator of Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key, praised on the front page of the New York Times as a “masterpiece” in an “eloquent translation.” He wrote the preface to the newest NYRB Classic, Yasushi Inoue’s Tun-huang.