I'm a sucker for lists. I have an Excel spreadsheet devoted to nothing but tabs and tabs of lists. So when the National Book Critics Circle bloggers over at Critical Mass started their occasional series on various critics' favorite criticism, "The Critical Library," I started a new list. It also got me (an NBCC member and occasional critic) to thinking, "What is my essential, couldn't-think-the-way-I-think-without-it, list of criticism?" Well, it's provisional, but here's my list (followed by a running, continuously-updated, compendium from the NBCC series):
The Hotel Zero Five Essential Books for Literary Criticism
Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millenium
"Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature. Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function. Since science has begun to distrust general explanations and solutions that are not sectorial and specialized, the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various 'codes,' into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world." - "Multplicity"
Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination
"I would swap eyes, were it possible, with an Aurignacian hunter; I suspect his of being sharper, better in every sense. History is not linear; it is the rings of growth in a tree; and it is tragic. Mr. Marshack's study of mind twenty millennia back is a touching of ghosts in the dark, the ghosts of people from whom we are descended, whose genes we carry in our bodies. Our most diligent sciences look inward to the cell and atom, to stave off death. The historical sciences do not so obviously stave off death, but it seems to me that searching for man in his past and finding him not brutal and inarticulate but a creature of accomplished sensitivity and order, sane and perhaps more alive than we, is a shield against the forces among us that stave off life." - "Prehistoric Eyes"
Gustave Flaubert, The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, Vols 1 and 2.
[Shame Alert! Not one edition of Flaubert's Letters is in print. WTF?]
"We must be on our guard against that feverish state called inspiration, which is often a matter of nerves rather than muscle. At this very moment, for example, I am keyed up to a high pitch--my brow is burning, sentences keep rushing into my head; for the past two hours I have been wanting to write you and haven't been able to wrench myself away from work for an instant. Instead of one idea I have six, and where the most simple exposition is called for I am tempted to elaborate. I am sure I could keep going until tomorrow noon without fatigue. But I know these masked balls of the imagination! You come away from them exhausted and depressed, having seen only falsity and spouted nonsense. Everything should be done coldly, with poise." - Letter to Louise Colet, February 27, 1853
Robert Musil, Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses
"...[everyone] is, if not always, at least from time to time, stupid. So a distinction must also be made between failing and incapacity, between occasional, or functional, and permanent, or constitutional, stupidity, between error and unreason. This is most important because of the way the conditions of life are today: so unintelligible, so difficult, so confused, that the occasional stupidities of the individual can easily lead to a constitutional stupidity of the body politic. This also ultimately leads observation from the realm of personal qualities to the idea of a society burdened with mental defects. Of course, one cannot transpose to whole societies what happens psychologically in a real sense in the individual, and this includes mental illnesses and stupidity, but still one might speak repeatedly today of a 'social imitation of mental defects'; the examples are pretty blatant." - "On Stupidity"
Frank O'Connor, The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story
"In a good story [narrative and drama] are nearly always kept in balance. In a Hemingway story drama, because it is stylized in the same way as the narrative, tends to lose its full impact. Dialogue, the autonomous element of drama, begins to blur, and the conversation becomes more like the conversation of alcoholics, drug addicts, or experts in Basic English. In Joyce's 'Grace,' the author's irony gives the conversation of the men in the sick room the same dull, claustrophobic quality, but there one can excuse it on the ground that his aim is comic. There is no such excuse for the conversation in Hemingway's story." - "A Clean Well-Lighted Place"
So there you go: five books. I could easily have included a dozen more, but these are the "desert island" volumes. What's missing? Orwell is essential; V.S. Pritchett was one of the best reviewers of the 20th Century; Updike's fluidity and style and fecundity are matchless; Virginia Woolf is a must; Gass and Ozick are on everyone's short-list; Mary McCarthy (whose On the Contrary is my favorite); the other mid-century giants: Trilling, Kazin, Cowley; Cyril Connolly (in the reviews, but especially in Enemies of Promise); Felstiner's two books on Celan and Neruda are marvels; anything by Hugh Kenner is a roman candle of insight and erudition (or, in the case of The Pound Era, a 30 megaton bomb); Fussell's cranky books on war literature--The Great War and Modern Memory & Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War--are pillars of my library (as is Samuel Hynes' The Soldiers' Tale); Edmund Wilson goes in without question (I have most of his books in treasured first editions); Thomas Mallon's In Fact is great--he's incapable of writing a boring review; I almost included Anne Carson's Eros the Bittersweet in my "five" (because it's beautiful and wise and no one brings the Greeks alive like her, with the possible exception of Logue with his breathtaking Homer); Barth's The Friday Book is a wonder (but: did he really write all of these on a Friday morning?); Auden's The Dyer's Hand is exemplary (the "Joker in the Pack" is one of the great Shakespearian essays); and you could go on and on (why haven't I, for instance, mentioned Albert Murray's The Hero and the Blues, which is as expansive in spirit as it is slender in size?). But then... we will go on and on: until the NBCC stops posting new lists. Comments are open--what're YOUR essentials?
NBCC's "The Critical Library"
[NB: Items with a number in parentheses indicate titles that have been selected by (n) critics.]
Erich Auerbach, Mimesis (3)
Roland Barthes, Sade/Fourier/Loyola
Walter Jackson Bate (Ed.) Criticism: The Major Texts (2)
R. P. Blackmur The Double Agent
Cyril Connolly The Enemies of Promise
Cyril Connolly The Evening Colonnade
T. S. Eliot, Selected Prose (2)
William Empson Milton's God
William Empson Seven Types of Ambiguity (2)
E. M. Forster Aspects of the Novel (2)
Northrup Frye Anatomy of Criticism
Dana Goia Does Poetry Matter?
Howard Hampton Born in Flames
Elizabeth Hardwick Seduction and Betrayal
Michael Hofmann Behind the Lines
John Hollander Vision and Resonance
Henry James The Notebooks
Randall Jarrell Poetry & the Age (6)
Randall Jarrell Kipling, Auden & Co.
Samuel Johnson Lives of the Poets
Donald Justice Platonic Scripts
Pauline Kael The Citizen Kane Book
Pauline Kael For Keeps
Alfred Kazin On Native Grounds (2)
John Keats The Letters of John Keats
Frank Kermode Pieces of My Mind
Frank Kermode The Romantic Image
Adam Kirsch The Modern Element
D. H. Lawrence Phoenix: Posthumous Papers
J. E. Lightner Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang
Dwight Macdonald Against the American Grain
Dwight Macdonald, et.al., Parodies
Mary McCarthy Bolt from the Blue
Ellen Moers Literary Women
B. R. Myers A Reader's Manifesto
Flannery O'Connor The Habit of Being
George Orwell The Collected Essays (4)
Dawn Powell The Diaries of Dawn Powell
Christopher Ricks The Force of Poetry
Susan Sontag On Photography
George Steiner No Passion Spent
Lionel Trilling The Liberal Imagination (4)
John Updike Hugging the Shore (2)
Gore Vidal United States: Essays 1952-1992
Edmund Wilson Literary Essays, Vol. 1 & 2 (5)
Edmund Wilson Patriotic Gore
James Wood The Irresponsible Self
Virginia Woolf The Common Reader (2)
Adam Zagajewski Another Beauty