Mr. Elegant Variation has posted a list by James Wood of what he regards as the best British and American writing since 1945. The list was drawn up in 1994 and consists in the main of books published prior to 1985 that (in Wood’s words) “seemed to me deep and beautiful, which aerate the soul and abrase the conscience.” It includes no biographies or plays–he claims to be ignorant of the theater–and, save for certain of George Orwell’s articles, no non-literary journalism.
Wood’s list contains one hundred and twenty-six books. Rather than shooting at fish or picking at nits, I thought it might be fun and interesting for me to name the sixteen books on Wood’s list that would also appear on mine:
W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand and Collected Poems
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between
Philip Larkin, Collected Poems
Marianne Moore, Complete Poems
Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man Is Hard to Find
George Orwell, Collected Essays and Journalism (but not Nineteen Eighty-Four)
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time
V.S. Pritchett, Complete Essays (but not Complete Stories)
Muriel Spark, Memento Mori (but not The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)
Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems
Angus Wilson, Hemlock and After and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (but not The Wrong Set)
Robert Penn Warren, All The King’s Men
I should also mention Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers, a book on the list that I read and liked when it was new but haven’t revisited for at least a quarter-century. I’ve no idea what I’d think of it now.
In several cases Wood chose books by authors for whom I would have picked something different. Here are my alternate choices:
• Ivy Compton-Burnett’s Manservant and Maidservant (instead of A Heritage and Its History)
• Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution (instead of Poetry and the Age)
• V.S. Naipaul’s The Mimic Men (instead of A House for Mr. Biswas, In a Free State, and The Enigma of Arrival)
• Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour (instead of Brideshead Revisited and The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold)
And what about the books on my list that aren’t on his? Another day, perhaps….