Sixteen Works of Creative Nonfiction
November 2, 2009 Leave a comment
Here are sixteen works classified as “creative nonfiction” and called “superlatively entertaining and artful” by Michael Dirda, in loose chronological order:
- Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians
- A. J. A. Symons, The Quest for Corvo
- Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana
- Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel
- Isak Dineson, Out of Africa
- M. F. K. Fisher, The Art of Eating
- Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave
- Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism
- Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince
- S. Schoenbaum, Shakespeare’s Lives
- Richard Ellmann, James Joyce
- Alison Lurie, V. R. Lang: A Memoir
- Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia
- Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
- Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination
- The Paris Review “Writers at Work” collections (especially the first four)
What’s a reader to do when confronted with a list like this? Michael Dirda is a sure guide to what’s of value. But it doesn’t follow that decisions about what to read aren’t personal. What principles guide the winnowing of reading lists and the prioritization of reading plans? Rather than prescribe principles here, I illustrate with my own reaction to Dirda’s list.
A. Books already familiar to me: (1), by virtue of owning and reading it; (5), because I saw the film; (6) since I’ve come across this recommendation many times before and have long had an interest in taking a dip; (8) having read bits, at least, and possibly owning a copy; (14) though I have not read the book or seen the movie (1967) or TV mini-series (1996); (15), by name only, and this I’m not completely sure of; (16) in volumes I’ve sampled during stray hours at the bookstore, though I have no idea whether they were among the first four.
B. My future with those books already familiar to me, in the ways outlined in (A) above: (1), satisfied with my current familiarity, agree about its brilliance, but acknowledge that I would not have thought to include it on any list of top 16, except out of a compunction to appear well-read and properly aligned in tastes with the literati (which is not particularly tempting); (5) shouldn’t let my impressions of the film (which were not unfavorable, in any case) prevent me from trying the book, but would read other items before getting to this, and so might not ever get to it; (6) confirmed in my disposition to read this, and probably will track it down for that purpose soon; (8) will consult again (as I would have anyway), partly because of my work on film analysis and the nature of narrative, and not at all because it’s on Dirda’s list (though the reminder is appreciated); (14) more inclined to read this before (5), and definitely inclined to see the movie; (15) the title compels me to look this up, with the hope that it will agree with my imagination of what it’s about; and, (16), time to return to these conversations with authors.
C. What about the others? (2), is appealing because of its prospect for revealing how a life may be researched for writing a biography; (3), cannot make sense of the description that this book is “The Waste Land of travel writing (though I do, I’ll have you know, recognize the reference to T. S. Eliot); (4), may be worth a visit, if only to see how “street-corner preachers” are depicted; (7), nothing said in Dirda’s brief entry on this memoir draws me to it over others (but the description at Amazon does); (9), recently running into references to great English literature about Japan, and now this one, I sense an inevitability about exploring this unfamiliar territory; (10), would have been a welcome discovery when I was more interested in the question of Shakespeare’s identity, a curiosity that has passed for me; (11), it’s tempting because Joyce is an enigma to me and his reputation is justified, but I did read Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and have read a few short stories, and this has seemed enough to me; (12), this one can wait, maybe for a nostalgic read next time I’m in the neighborhood of Harvard or Cambridge (though which Cambridge I’m not sure); (13), not particularly interested in Patagonia, but if this is “the most influential travel book of our time,” I’ll have to take a look, just to see what it could mean to call a travel book “influential” (though I have my own ideas about this).
D. Bottom line: Skip (1)-(5), (7)-(8), (10), and (12), for the time being. That leaves seven others. I surprise myself that (11) made the cut; but Dirda does call it “the finest literary biography of the twentieth century.” I’m skeptical about (13), but willing to learn more. I’m intrigued by (9), largely because of the coincidence of coming across several appealing references to literature related to Japan, a coincidence that I’ve learned to trust as a guide into the serendipitous; standing apart from the others, (14) is a “mood book,” in the sense that I’ll have to be in the right mood (whatever that is), and I’m not at the moment (and rarely am); (16) makes the list because of past experience and because these are collections of conversational pieces, with implicit guidelines for worthwhile interviewing and insight into the vicissitudes of the writing life; (6) and (15) are toss-ups for first place, and will probably be read in the order in which they next cross my radar.
So, here’s the order I’m most likely to follow with the seven I’m most inclined to read: (15), (6), (9), (14), (13) (11), (16).
For more from Amazon about each book, click on its title in the list above. With the exception of (12) by Alison Lurie, they all appear to be in print. And all are in the four- to five-star range at Amazon.