What’s In Your Book Bag?

I’m passing along this interesting report from The Daily Beast:

Again the folks at the PEN World Voices Festival in NYC have prepared a book bag with a good selection of books generally considered amonst the best literature. This year the books were selected by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Jennifer Egan. Here are the books she chose with a note explaining her selection:

Emma by Jane Austen
Politics masquerading as matrimony. Austen was a mathematician of social interaction, and her novels are impossibly, preposterously good. Emma happens to be my favorite.

The Image by Daniel J. Boorstin
In 1961, before the Vietnam War was close to being televised, Boorstin identified the basic laws and contours of image culture—among them, a longing for authenticity that naturally results from increased mediation of human experience. His observations hold eerily true even in the era of Facebook and YouTube.

Don Juan by Lord Byron
Who can resist an epic poem in which the protagonist gets shipwrecked, hides in a harem (and then is chosen by the sultan for an evening of pleasure), has a fling with Catherine the Great, and endless other romps—all narrated in Byron’s slouchy, sinuous poetry?

Underworld by Don DeLillo
My favorite American novel of the past 25 years. A gigantic vision of the Cold War and its aftermath, in which DeLillo manages to be sweeping, intimate, political, hilarious, and sad.

Middlemarch by George Elliot
A quintessentially swaggering 19th-century English novel, thrillingly attentive to a sweep of diverse characters, and impossible to put down.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
A surreal tale that exposes the ravages of racial persecution, yet ultimately subsumes them in a meditation on identity and transformation, whose proportions are nothing short of mythic.

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard
Utterly unique; a flexible, sharply written, wide-ranging story that encompasses the life of a young Australian woman who comes to England.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
An epic, experimental yet utterly human work that manages to fuse a political vision (disillusionment with communism) with a social one (women, men, and the collisions between them).

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
Tough, bleak, and deeply atmospheric; Rhys wrests a gripping—even phantasmagoric—narrative from the solitary perambulations of an alcoholic woman in Paris.

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
One of the first novels in English … and a buoyant, postmodern romp. A hearty reminder of the power, malleability, and deep playfulness of the novel form.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Tragic in the classical sense, yet also hilarious, nuanced, and socially astute; the novel’s cool assessment of the calculus of beauty and wealth rings true even in our radically different era.

Germinal by Émile Zola
My favorite reportorial 19th-century novel. A vivid story full of spectacular set pieces—like a horse being lowered into a coal mine—and also a brutal indictment of the mining industry’s exploitation of its workers.

I might not have zeroed in on the same title, but I could see my version of this list containing Emma, Don Juan, Middlemarch, Invisible Man, Tristram Shandy, and Germinal but I would be hesitant on the other six (and the DeLillo is definitely not on my list). I believe I would select Ulysses, Notre Dame des Fleurs, Under the Volcano, Madame Bovary, At Swim-Two-Birds, and The Makioka Sisters. Yes, I like that list:  not every selection is “the best” but I believe it is a better representation than the batch of books in the bag.

Last year Salman Rushdie did the selection. I would like to see his choices. I concede that everyone has a different opinion of what ten or twelve books are a good representation of general literature. Do you have your own ideas that you might want to share?

5 thoughts on “What’s In Your Book Bag?

  1. I know this is an old post, but it was one of those featured and linked at the bottom of the page when I read your recent post on Banville’s The Sea. So I followed the breadcrumbs, and here I am. (I just looked it up, and this year’s Pen World Voices Festival – the 10th anniversary fest – just started today, April 28, 2014, which is an interesting bit of serendipity. So perhaps this is an appropriate bit of post necromancy, after all.)

    I remembered reading something about Egan’s list back when it was current, and I knew I’d then also been curious about the earlier Rushdie choices and had searched them out and saved the list. I found it on my hard drive among all the other random bookish flotsam. These were Rushdie’s choices:

    Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass
    William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury
    F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
    Eudora Welty: The Collected Stories
    Bernard Malamud: The Complete Stories
    Saul Bellow: Humboldt’s Gift
    Philip Roth: Portnoy’s Complaint
    Flannery O’Connor: Everything That Rises Must Converge
    Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse-Five
    Thomas Pynchon: V.
    Joseph Heller: Catch-22
    Toni Morrison: Beloved
    Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

    I haven’t been able to find a list for last year or this year. Perhaps they’ve discontinued this custom?

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    1. Ha! Now that I’ve posted the above, the blog offers me a related/linked post wherein you looked this list up and posted it.

      I’m still curious as to whether they’ve continued this book bag custom.

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    1. This is a variation on the old Desert Island game where you get to pick the three (or two or one) books you would want to have with you when you are marooned on a desert island. I can see now, after fifty or more years playing the game, that a person’s age probably is reflected in the selections. What would be your three desert island books?

      I think I’ll go with Ulysses, The Anatomy of Melancholy, and À la recherché du temps perdu (I know, that’s cheating but I’ll take the French edition to make up for it).

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      1. I’d probably go with The Little Prince, Robinson Crusoe, and Interview with the Vampire. Something hopeful, something practical, and something pure fun.

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