WHY I SELECTED THESE PARTICULAR books to write about is a mystery to me. My original idea was that between best seller charts on the one hand and literary classics on the other, there exists a vast territory of very good books which are not so much unknown as ignored. All five of these selections come from that vast territory, but I make no claim that they are the “best” of anything. On another day, one with the sun casting different shadows on my desk and the neighbors shouting different epithets out their windows, I would have made a different selection. The possibilities were endless. I shall, therefore, countenance no objections that begin, “But you should have included…” If there are books you would rather read this summer, go right ahead. You’ll get no argument from me.
The Benchley Roundup, by Robert Benchley, edited by Nathaniel Benchley
I became a confirmed Benchley fan when I discovered in an anthology one of his essays that began, “Paris! Ah, what magic lies in those words.” His work, like that of Thurber and Perelman, is still funny today not only because it’s funny (There isn’t much critical vocabulary for humor; funny is funny and not funny is not funny and that’s about all there is to it.) but also because Benchley has a point of view that is his own. He is a man who finds concentration difficult, travel of doubtful benefit, family living a major inconvenience, high-toned discussions of art fruitless, and starched shirts a major obstacle to civilized living. In fact Benchley finds the world an almost unliveable place, a state of affairs which leaves him wistful but not bitter:
“A great many people have come up to me and asked me how I manage to get so much work done and still keep looking so dissipated…The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency…is a simple one. I have based it very deliberately on a well-known psychological principle and have refined it so that it is now almost too refined. I shall have to begin coarsening it up again pretty soon.
“The psychological principle is this: Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”
A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell
This novel runs something more than 2000 pages and invites, needless to say, readers who have the time to wallow in a deep chair for days on end and just read. It is organized into a series of shorter novels, most of them less than 200 pages, narrated by the same man and dealing with the disorganized lives and strange peregrinations of an immense cast of characters. “The result,” as Powell’s narrator informs us early on, “is a general tendency for things to be brought to the level of farce even when the theme is serious enough.” For Powell’s theme is life itself. His novel, the result of years of planning and more years of dedicated work, comes closer to capturing the strange matrix of experiences and human associations across the long rhythms of time than any other book I know.
Listen to his sentences: “Sandals worn over black socks gave an authentically medieval air to his extremities.” “His whole life seemed so irrevocably concentrated on debutante dances that it was impossible to imagine Archie Gilbert finding any tolerable existence outside a tail-coat.” These characters play their part, then, perhaps, disappear not to reappear for 500 pages. Then we find them involved in a new circle of associates who may or may not have played a part in past chapters or future follies. All of this without surrealist mumbo jumbo, forced melodrama, or, incredible as it may seem, confusion of character or plot. The novel is, as the title proclaims, a slow dance to time’s silent but insistent music:
“For reasons not always at the time explicable, there are specific occasions when events begin suddenly to take on a significance previously unsuspected; so that, before we really know where we are, life seems to have begun in earnest at last, and we ourselves, scarcely aware that any change has taken place, are careening uncontrollably down the slippery avenues of eternity.”
Digging Up the Past, by Sir Leonard Woolley
This is a very short book, less than 150 pages; but it is one of those rare treasures, a book which unconsciously becomes something more than it needed or was intended to be. Its primary purpose is to explain exactly what a field archeologist does: how he selects a site for excavation, how he plots out the digging and organizes his labor force, how he identifies and dates objects the digging turns up, and how he studies those objects in order to reach conclusions about the civilization he is investigating. While revealing all that, Sir Leonard reveals something of himself as well. It takes great imagination to be a good archeologist—he must be as much novelist as scientist—and the inner workings of that imagination shine through between the lines of this absorbing little book:
“The robbers had simply…burrowed a hole through into the chamber, a hole, perhaps, only big enough for a man to put his arm through…We, entering by the door 2000 years later, would find everything apparently undisturbed; the painted clay vases, the bronze bowls, the glass bottles, and toilet box of wood inlaid with ivory were all in their places, the body stretched out orderly and in peace. Then one would see, beyond the head, the jagged hole in the wall of grey mud; two or three fallen beads by the neck would show how the string had been snapped and the necklace snatched away; the right arm might have been bent up and back and a finger torn off for the sake of a gold ring.”
Blood Sport, by Dick Francis
Before he began to write seriously, Dick Francis was a jockey in England and a good enough one to be retained as top rider for the Queen’s stables. In the late Fifties, worried that a spill might aggravate old injuries and cause him permanent harm, Francis hung up his silks and turned to making a living by the pen. Racing’s loss has been reading’s gain.
Dick Francis writes thrillers, which is not to say his books are inconsequential. His characters are jockeys, grooms, stable boys, horse trainers, horse owners, cheap women, expensive women, gamblers (honest and otherwise), hoodlums, and thoroughbred horses; his theme is the exploitation of honest men and innocent animals by those possessed by greed. While Francis knows quite well how that works, he also knows how to structure a plot, develop characters, maintain suspense, and, yes, even integrate a little symbolism now and then. What more can you want that’s legal?
I’ve chosen Blood Sport from the list of his novels not only because it seems to me his best but also because it allows for quoting the book’s opening paragraph:
“I awoke with foreboding. My hand closed in a reflex on the Luger under the pillow. I listened, acutely attentive. No sound. No quick surreptitious slither, no rub of cloth on cloth, no half-controlled pulse-driven breath. No enemy hovering. Slowly, relaxing, I turned half over and squinted at the room. A quiet, empty, ugly room. One third of what for want of a less cozy word I called home.”
Logical Chess Move by Move, by Irving Chernev
Last year’s Fischer-Spassky match incited a frenzy of chess book publishing unequalled in American history. Corner news stands whose money crop had been bedside readers of notorious content suddenly found their shelves sprouting rows of chess manuals, game collections, grandmaster biographies, and giant Bobby Fischer posters. I found my copy of Logical Chess sandwiched between Teenage Lusts and Eat More, Weigh Less in a 7-11 bookrack.
It was a lucky find indeed. Logical Chess is a collection of 33 games by grandmasters with comments by Chernev on every move of every game. These comments are not the exhaustive analysis of obscure variations that make many chess books so dog-faced dull. Instead, in plain English, Chernev explains the principles of chess strategy and shows their application though game after game. At the same time he manages to illuminate, even for those without much knowledge of the game, the beauty of grandmaster chess. It’s this combination of straightforward instruction and aesthetic delight that gives the book a special charm :
“5.Kt-KB3. This is where the King Knight is most useful, so why not place it there at once? Even the greatest masters do not play startling, bizarre or ‘brilliant’ moves in the opening in an effort to be different, or to impress others with their ability to find extraordinary moves in commonplace positions. They are content to develop the pieces quickly, placing them on squares where they will operate to greatest effect and then wait for Nature to take its course. When the time is ripe for combination play, the odds are it will turn in favor of the fellow whose development is superior.”