"Envy," said John Gay, "is a kind of praise." With that noble sentiment in mind, I offer the following list of books, all of which have one thing in common: They make me jealous. Each is exactly the sort of book I wish I were smart enough, or imaginative enough, or talented enough, to write. Every time I reread one of these books, I get a little greener. The next time you turn to this page and find a pan with my name at the top, remember this list, and smile. I may sound cocky, but here are seven authors who leave me at the starting gate:
"An Alphabet for Gourmets," by M.F.K. Fisher (1949). Rare indeed is the writer capable of spinning a completely original literary genre out of his or her own head. M.F.K. Fisher, who wrote books of philosophy disguised as books about food, did it in "An Alphabet for Gourmets," whose 26 chapters (not counting the foreword, afterword and recipe index) shine with the hard-earned confidence of a truly wise woman who knows that the point of life is to live.
Here is a taste of "S is for Sad": "The prettifiers of human passion choose to think that a man who has just watched his true love die is lifted above such ugly things as food, that he is exalted by his grief, that his mind dwells exclusively on thoughts of eternity and the hereafter. ... The truth is that most bereaved souls crave nourishment more tangible than prayers: they want a steak. What is more, they need a steak. Preferably they need it rare, grilled, heavily salted, for that way it is most easily digested, and most quickly turned into the glandular whip their tired adrenals cry for."
"The Long Goodbye," by Raymond Chandler (1954). Three times I've started writing a mystery novel, and three times I've blown up midway through the first chapter, blushing at my limitless incompetence. Part of the problem is that I've read "The Long Goodbye" too many times.
How can you top a book that starts off like this? "The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox's left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and for no other." If you don't turn that page, you'd better stick to Swedish land-use planning.
The sexiest novel
"The Vagabond," by Colette (1911). Forget "Lady Chatterley's Lover" - this is the sexiest novel I know. It's the story of a woman of a certain age, trying to nail her life back together after a bad divorce. No sex scenes, no four-letter words: just sensuality of the purest kind.
Here's a kiss, described by a woman who knew how to: "I move my head imperceptibly, because of his moustache which brushes against my nostrils with a scent of vanilla and honeyed ** tobacco. Oh! ... suddenly my mouth, in spite of itself, lets itself be opened, opens of itself as irresistibly as a ripe plum splits in the sun. And once again there is born that exacting pain that spreads from my lips, all down my flanks as far as my knees, that swelling as of a wound that wants to open once more and overflow - the voluptuous pleasure that I had forgotten." Excuse me while I loosen my collar...
"A Christmas Garland," by Max Beerbohm (1912). Parody is the subtlest form of literary criticism, and the cruelest. "A Christmas Garland," in which Max Beerbohm spoofs with ventriloquistic precision the styles of George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, G.K. Chesterton, H.G. Wells and Joseph Conrad (as well as a handful of once-eminent Victorians now remembered mainly because Max thought them worthy of parodies), is both subtle and cruel - and very, very funny.
Try this snippet from Max's version of how Henry James might have described two children on Christmas morning: "And, since Eva had set her heart on a doll of ample proportions and practicable eyelids -had asked that most admirable of her sex, their mother, for it with not less directness than he himself had put into the demand for a sword and helmet - her coyness now struck Keith as lying near to, at indeed a hardly measurable distance from, the borderline of his patience."
"Guard of Honor," by James Gould Cozzens (1948). Not a single shot is fired in anger in the best novel written about World War II. Set at a training camp in Florida, "Guard of Honor" tells you all there is to know about the meaning of leadership. Cozzens won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for this great novel, which was promptly forgotten. But fans of America's most underrated novelist remember it well, and reread it regularly.
Join them and you'll learn, along with a thousand other indelible things, exactly what a general looks like: "It was a hollower and an older face. It was severe and pensive, as though thinned and worn by strain or stress or trial. There was a clear mournfulness of eye, suggesting persistent if not deep ponderings, long unlighted vigils, an undeceived apprehension, a stern, wakeful grasp of the nature of things. ... General Nichols looked out calmly, in well-earned assurance of rightly estimating the possibilities and limitations of the Here and Now, and so of being ready for what might come."
"In Cold Blood," by Truman Capote (1965). Capote called "In Cold Blood" a "nonfiction novel," but that was just to get the suckers into the tent. In fact, this "true account of a multiple murder and its consequences" is a masterpiece of good old-fashioned journalism. In addition to writing with the spare elegance of a virtuoso stylist, Truman Capote had an ear for the perfect quote.
Take this one, said by Perry Smith when he confessed to killing Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie and their two youngest children: "I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat." The day I bring home a piece of bacon like that, I'm nominating myself for a Pulitzer.
The last word
"Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63," by Taylor Branch (1988). Every biographer dreams - usually in vain - of writing a book that says the last word on a great subject. This one does it. Nowhere has the essence of Martin Luther King Jr. been more completely conveyed than in the stirring pages of this epic of postwar American history: "Race had taught him hard lessons about the greater witness of sacrifice than truth, but there was more. Nonviolence had come over him for a purpose that far transcended segregation. It touched evils beyond color and addressed needs more human than status or possessions. Having lifted him up among rulers, it would drive him back down to die among garbage workers in Memphis. King had crossed over as a patriarch like Moses into a land less bounded by race. To keep going, he became a pillar of fire." Here endeth the lesson.
Terry Teachout, the music critic of Commentary, will begin writing a column about American culture in May for Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress. He writes regularly about books for the New York Times Book Review, opera for Opera News and jazz for the Wall Street Journal. The latest of his four books, "A Second Mencken Chrestomathy," is out in paperback from Vintage. He is at work on "H. L. Mencken: A Life."