King Lear is the greatest achievement of the human imagination. It encompasses every experience of our time on this planet with unsentimental compassion. It is a terrifying fable, a wise exploration of man’s inhumanity to man and a comforting guide as we proceed, like Lear, to the promised end.
I reread this book every couple of years. I’m still trying to understand why it has me so completely in its thrall. It’s a mystery, wrapped in a dream. No wonder all attempts to film, dramatize or musicalize it have missed. These are not “real” people. They are ghosts of the American dream who continue to haunt us. Their laughter seems long ago but their sadness is contemporary.
More than a biography, Ellmann’s telling of the familiar tale of the Irish playwright’s spectacular rise and tragic downfall holds up a mirror to society’s hypocrisy about almost everything but especially sex. Wilde was the original victim of “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.” He was London’s pet Bad Boy until it turned out he was a man with a dick as well.
If you are at all interested in what it’s like to work in the theater, especially Broadway, this is the only book you need to read. It’s more fun (and accurate) than All About Eve and as someone who can recite Joseph Mankiewicz’s screenplay from memory that is high praise indeed.
Paul Monette’s memoir is a devastating account of his encounter with a disease that would kill him. It is so intimate and personal that I often felt I was reading someone’s diary and was ashamed to be committing such a gross invasion of another person’s privacy. Paul Monette was not a careless man. He wanted us to know and remember what AIDS did to him. He succeeded more than he could ever have realized. Books about what it means to be human have no expiration date.
This is the only book on the list you don’t actually have to read. PBS and Masterpiece Theatre are already filming the umpteenth version of it. Unlike Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice is always ready for its close-up. Austen’s characters have a charisma that make actors want to play them. But her prose is pretty terrific, too, and the sheer fun of reading Jane Austin is a good reason to curl up with one of her books, especially this one. You’ll fall in love with Mr. Darcy, too. And then you can dream cast him in the next remake.
I read this book in high school when it was first published. It had the reputation of being “dirty.” It did not disappoint: I was all of 14. It was also deliciously funny. It still is. Its status is secure and I doubt there’s a “Best” list it’s not on. It’s wildly romantic, scathingly satiric of middle-class Americans as only a European aristocrat can see us, and ultimately deeply moving. Lolita is the light of everyone’s loins. Humbert Humbert’s despair is anyone’s who has loved and lost in vain. Nabokov “gets” America and Americans. He is one of the great writers in English and it wasn’t even his first language.
Chekhov is one of my gods and this, his first play, is my favorite. It’s a well-observed ensemble of the famous, the not-so-famous and their hangers-on at a country house they retreat to when the theatre is too much with them. But even there they are very good at playing games with one another. The genius of Chekhov is to transcend the small events that define us and reveal the universal truth behind the most ordinary situation. To me, he is the first modern writer. He writes on a human scale and by doing so with such detail, he rises to Olympian heights as surely as Oedipus or Hamlet.
This is another book I read in high school when I could not have possibly understood it. I read the whole thing, too, all seven volumes of it. I don’t know who I was trying to impress. At the time, I felt very sophisticated in figuring out that Charlus was gay and the first thing I did when I went to Paris was to go to a bakery and eat a madeleine. I’m still determined to read Proust’s epic depiction of society again. The newest translation sits on my desk but I think I’ll stick with my old Moncrieff. I’ve had a date with it since high school.
I’ve read, reread and loved this book most of my life. It never disappoints. Twain writes with an easygoing virtuosity that makes American English the equal of any King’s. This is the book that codified American English, not Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter. Those two great books are American Literature. Huck and Jim are America. The seeds of the tragedy of racism are planted on nearly every page of Twain’s masterpiece. Those birds are still coming home to roost.