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The books we turn back to

The other night, looking for a little bookish companionship between work and bed — everyone else in the house, including the cats, was asleep — I picked up a volume of Georges Simenon’s Maigret stories, and soon it was as if I was sitting outside the Brasserie Dauphine with a glass of beer and a pipe.

Opening a new book carries the same sense of risk and discovery as being introduced to a person. Fascinating or a relentless bore? A companion or a tease? But there are times when it is better just to sit down with an old friend to renew the acquaintance.

Every few years I go back to Trollope’s Barchester Towers, to that compact little world of Anglican country cathedral politics with its lovingly delineated personalities. Archdeacon Grantley jealously guarding clerical prerogatives and perquisites, Mrs. Proudie aggressively pushing Low-Churchiness. Best book of the Barchester sequence.

I still like Pnin better than Nabokov’s more ambitious novels: perfect in its scope and structure, funny and humane. A couple of years ago, at this blog, I quoted one of my favorite passages.

Every time I pick up Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets I find something new. It is a mature work, the product of a lifetime’s reading and reflecting on literature and human character. And while his sympathy for the human struggle against adversity and disappointment is moving, it is also gratifying to see how deftly he slips the knife in when the subject is someone he does not much like.

Gatsby! Is there anyone who has not re-read Gatsby with delight? If it weren’t for Huckleberry Finn, Gatsby would be the American novel. Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop can still make me laugh out loud. Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop evokes the landscape of the Southwest. Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution is the academic novel, packed with epigrammatic observations on the characters that are another pleasure to quote. Joan Didion’s essays are still as sharp as when I first encountered them.

Murder mysteries are a particular subcategory, because (you’ve heard this one before) after a long day of working with professional journalists, nothing is more gratifying than sitting in a comfortable chair, with a good light and a strong drink at your elbow, to read about disagreeable people meeting violent death.

I have the advantage of forgetting the plots almost immediately, so that every few years I can turn over Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries again. At the Book Thing, I picked up a couple of anthologies of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels, which I hadn’t read for thirty years, and rediscovered how good he is at writing about crime in California. P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh. Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s Martin Beck. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. All good, reliable friends over the years.

By all means keep making new friends, but don’t forget your old ones.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:56 AM | | Comments (9)


I rarely hear Barchester fans mention "Dr. Thorne," but that is my favorite of the series: A Cinderella story that I read every few years with renewed amazement that Trollope can so entertainingly delay the only possible conclusion for so many pages.

Barchester fans should also try Angela Thirkell's return to the region in her 20th-century novels -- not Trollope, but delightful in their own way, and so eminently forgettable that you can re-read them almost as often as you require that particular sort of comfort.

Oh, shoot, I didn't mean to be Anonymous in recommending Dr. Thorne, above. But what a pleasure that I can comment again -- Firefox seems to approve of your return to the Sun's employ.

Josephine Tey's "The Singing Sands" often does it for me. Dorothy L. Sayers's language is splendid, and some of her secondary and tertiary characters are memorable.And then there is Robertson Davies, some of whose books are operatic in style and scope.

Hemmingway's "A Farewell To Arms" is an old friend. "Gatsby", too. "The Big Sleep" and most any of Raymond Chandler's novels. Always a joy to revisit old friends.

I seem to collect mystery series by geography or ethnicity: Tony Hillerman, for instance, or the Judge Dee stories by Robert van Gulik, or the Dutch cops of Janwillem van de Wetering. They vary in plot complexity and so on, but for writing that I just enjoy and admire, give me James McLure's Kramer and Zondi novels (despite their dated political setting) and best of all, Freeling's Castang novels. And then there's Rumpole.

Jane Austen, Jane Austen, Jane Austen (repeat continuously).

I'm with Tim!

I would add the Inpector Morse series by Colin Dexter, Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren, and the Horse's Mouth by Joyce Cary. I liked your list though.

I have been reading biographies lately, but this entry made me think of books I haven't read in a while. PG Wodehouse Jeeves series immediately came to mind. It has probably been 25 years or more, but as I remember the dry wit always got me laughing! Thanks for helping me to bring back the memories!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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