Before there was the internet, there were books. I grew up in a family that didn’t have a television set until long after I had become a voracious reader, and didn’t have a TV set that got more than two channels until after I had graduated from high school. In the summers, I lived in a house–so to speak–on a lake, that barely had a roof, and had no television, no telephone, no beds (I slept on an army cot), no heat, not even hot water. So I read books. Not hundreds of books, thousands of books. Some of them were really, really good. Most were not–sports books, for example: Circus Catch, Rookie at the Hot Corner, Southpaw Jinx, and countless others.
Those days are long gone, but I’ve never lost the sense of reading as a guilty pleasure. This time of year, lots of people are recommending books. Most such recommendations are high-minded; some are excellent. Like, for example, the Claremont book lists that the Trunk linked to earlier today.
But I want to do something a little different: guilty pleasures. Here are a few of my favorites. Some are great books; others are not. But they’re all irresistible.
The Hardy Boys: The principal author of the series, which was published under the pseudonym “Franklin W. Dixon,” hated them, and referred to them disparagingly as “the juveniles.” For several years, though, they were my favorites. I read twenty or thirty of them to my own children, and I still love them. For a representative Hardy Boys book that doesn’t fall prey to the weirdness that afflicted some titles, try The Cabin Island Mystery. If you don’t mind a little strangeness, try the first Hardy Boys book that I read, one whose mysteries haunted me for a long time: Footprints Under the Window.
The Devil In Velvet: John Dickson Carr was a very famous mystery writer who published somewhere around a hundred books. He was also a brilliant man, a self-taught polymath, who, among other things, had an encyclopedic knowledge of English history. Along with his many murder mysteries, he wrote several historical novels. One of them, The Devil In Velvet, is one of my all-time favorite books. I read it when I was fourteen and loved it. I searched for it, on and off, for decades thereafter, until it was finally re-issued in paperbook a few years ago. It is just as good as I remembered it. The protagonist is a history professor who sells his soul to the Devil in return for an opportunity to be transported to Restoration England, in which he is an expert. As always, there is a catch. And one of his students–a beautiful young woman, coincidentally–follows him.
Wallace Stevens: Stevens is the only poet I like, other than Shakespeare and (sometimes) Philip Larkin. (And Wordsworth and Byron, and probably a few more if I thought about it.) There is a wonderful collection, edited by his daughter, called The Palm at the End of the Mind, which introduced me to Stevens when I was a college student. I would recommend it to anyone. I like the fact that Wallace was an executive with a Hartford, Connecticut insurance company, whose co-workers were astonished to learn that he was a poet when he won the Pulitzer Prize. Wallace’s is, for me, the quintessential modern sensibility.
Certain historical novels: I am a big fan of historical novels in general. In addition to The Devil In Velvet, here are a few of my favorites: First, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels. You know about them; it’s true, they’re great. Second, Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders. This might be a little more eccentric choice, but Smiley, before she became famous and sold out to the Hollywood left, was a great writer. The Greenlanders is the best historical novel, and one of the best novels, period, I’ve ever read. Third, Sharpe’s Rifles and its successors. A classic series, set during the Napoleonic Wars, which I’ve only recently discovered.
The Great Train Robbery, by Michael Crichton. The wonderful (and true) story of how a brilliant criminal, his beautiful girlfriend, and a gang that included, among others, a contortionist, pulled off one of the greatest crimes of the 19th century. A superb book.
John Macnab, by John Buchan. There is a story here that involves my uncle Charlie, a spy, whose favorite writer was Buchan, and a trip that I took with my family to Scotland a few years ago, where I swiped, sort of, a copy of this book from the library of the castle hotel where we stayed near Loch Ness. John Macnab is a terrific book about some distinguished friends who take a holiday from their serious lives, invent a character of that name, and try to carry out a series of feats involving salmon and deer. You might have to be a guy to fully appreciate this one.
The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope. Trollope is great, of course, and this is one of his classics. Don’t be put off by stupid commentary describing this book as a critique of capitalism. Trollope was nowhere near that dumb, and this is one of the great novels of all time. And a guilty pleasure to boot. The main character, the con artist Augustus Melmotte, is so vivid that it’s hard to root against him.
Edgar Allan Poe. Who reads Poe any more? I don’t know, but it’s hard to think of anyone in the history of literature who was so versatile and so influential. Poe invented both the detective story and the horror story. He was also a pre-eminent literary critic and a great poet. And, despite the fact that he created two genres from which hundreds of writers of far less talent have earned millions, his life-long curse was poverty. Pick up any collection of his works and read “The Gold-Bug” and “Annabel Lee,” then go from there.
Eugene Onegin, by Vladimir Nabokov. I’m a big Nabokov fan, but this super-literal translation of Pushkin’s classic is sui generis. It is a beautiful, beautiful book, and is accompanied by a second, much longer volume of notes and commentary on everything under the Sun, encompassing Russian literature, history, meteorology, etc. Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin and his commentary thereon was the inspiration for Pale Fire, another guilty pleasure, consisting of a poem (whose opening and closing lines reprise the structure of the work, a fact that I have never seen noted by any critic) and a much longer commentary, by an insane commentator.
Romeo and Juliet. The ultimate guilty pleasure. Read it again.
The Count of Monte Cristo. Hardly anyone nowadays reads the original, unedited, multi-volume version. But you should. It is the acme of romanticism; I devoted most of a year’s worth of high school study halls to it, along with all of the volumes of Dumas’s Three Musketeers series, which I inherited from my grandmother. The Count of Monte Cristo includes, early on, one of the great moments in guilty pleasure literature, when the Abbe dies and the unjustly imprisoned Edmond Dantes takes his place in the funeral shroud, and is hurled from the top of the Chateau d’If into the sea.
The Mayor of Casterbridge. I love Thomas Hardy; every novel he wrote was wonderful. But this is probably my favorite. It occurred to me as an adult, after I had read countless books, that I had never really encountered a character with whom I identified. Then, when I was past 40, I read The Mayor of Casterbridge. It is a great, poignant story, tragic like most of Hardy’s books. Most striking to me, however, was that it contains the first character I ever encountered that caused me to say: “That’s me.” There are two characters in the book who are, at various times, the Mayor of Casterbridge, and if you can’t figure out which one I identify with, you haven’t been reading this site long enough.
In Search of Lost Time. I know, many people regard Proust as a chore, not a guilty pleasure (like, say, Henry James, a terrible writer, in my opinion). But they’re wrong. I started reading Proust when I was a senior in college. I had a ritual, where every term, as soon as I had finished my last final, I would go to the college book store and pick out a novel to read. I’ve rarely experienced such a joyful feeling as digging into a new book with a clear conscience and nothing to worry about until the next term began. That’s how I encountered Proust, and he was a revelation. For the next year and a half, whenever I finished a term (or when I finished a volume, in the summer) I would pick up the next book in Proust’s incomparable series. He is, among other things, one of the funniest of novelists. If you’ve been put off by Proust until now, and if you have enough leisure to relax and enjoy him, give his book a try.
There are many more, of course, but that’s enough for now. Our readers, no doubt, can suggest guilty pleasures of their own.
DEACON adds: My guilty pleasures tend to be books like Jim Bouton’s Ball Four and Jim Brosnan’s precursors, The Long Season and Pennant Race. However, I can also recommend Anthony Powell’s brilliant series A Dance to the Music of Time. Some consider Powell to be the English Proust. Evelyn Waugh, I believe, made that comparison and concluded that Powell is funnier.
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