The other day, perhaps Friday, a friend asked me for a few books they should read. I gladly responded with a list of five books that I thought suitable for their reading taste, even asking my mother for a good romance author. The joy that I found in this small favour has led me to wonder what I might, at this point of my nonage, recommend to someone moulded like myself, and, to keep a short story short, these are what I listed. (Most of these books are findable within the J. B. Morrell Library at the University of York.)
Walter Benjamin. Illuminations; One-Way Street. This Weimar essayist is vogue amongst leftist literati and casual namedroppers alike, but despite the popular mystique of the tragic melancholic, lounging about like a plump and misplaced penguin, the comfiness of Benjamin should be one of life’s small joys. The two books recommended are selective collections: the well-read Illuminations and the less-read Verso collection titled One-Way Street and Other Writings. The former, composed of essays chosen and introduced by Hannah Arendt, has five texts worth highlighting: ‘The Storyteller’, ‘Franz Kafka’, ‘The Image of Proust’, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, and ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’. The latter is, perhaps, a more favourable place to begin reading Benjamin. The Verso translation of One-Way Street surpasses the limited and, in my opinion, drably written Penguin selection of the same name. It combines the titular book of aphorisms and short prose, which Benjamin dedicated to his Latvian lover Asja Lācis, with an eclectic mixture of esoteric fragments and travel writings. Most will find joy wandering down Benjamin’s imagined street, “named Asja Lacis Street after her who as an engineer cut it through the author”, as ideas and images flutter past, and many more will find pleasurable his journey through Moscow and his reading of Marseilles whilst intoxicated by hashish.
Jorge Luis Borges. Fictions; Dreamtigers; Labyrinths. Another wonder of the last century is this Argentine author – who seems hardly to have had a bad word to say about anyone, besides Nazism and Filippo Marinetti. Similar to Benjamin, Borges’ corpus is composed of curios: essays, poetry, and short stories. He mastered concision and, in particular, the short story, wherein he can expand a single idea to extremes. This is most evident within his Fictions, with tales such as ‘The Lottery of Babylon’, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, and ‘The Library of Babel’, and his essays within Labyrinths oft share the quality of his short stories, sometimes rendering it difficult to discern between them. Although Borges’ motifs, of the maze, infinity, and mirrors, are associated with angst, there never seems a threat within his work and he is always a delight to read. Indeed, Borges is at his best when most subtle, with ‘The South’, ‘Everything and Nothing’, and ‘Kafka and His Precursors’ standing out for me in this regard. An auxiliary recommendation, for adventurous spirits, is his essay on Biathanatos, which can be found within the Penguin collection titled The Total Library.
Clare Sheridan. Russian Portraits. If there is, as the literary critic Harold Bloom contends, a Canon of Literature, wherein the best and universal works reside, then Sheridan would be excluded. This has nothing to do with her being a sculptor by profession or a cousin of Winston Churchill, but it is because the book of hers that I recommend is a period piece populated by names that even enthusiasts might find obscure. However, I find it an insightful and pleasurable read regardless. Russian Portraits is composed of the diary entries Sheridan wrote when she was commissioned by Lev Kamenev to make busts of himself and other leading Bolsheviks in 1920. Though she expresses much homesickness and political naïveté, she distinguishes herself from other visitors to the recently established socialist state through her physiognomic sensitivity. Her detailed descriptions of the faces of those dangerous and cold men, most prominently Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Felix Dzerzhinsky, in such an apolitical and, indeed, intimate manner demonstrate, at least for me, a greater quality of consciousness than most historians (who oft dismiss her as a flirt or romantic side-character) allow Sheridan. It is this quality of consciousness, as well as the primacy of that revolutionary period, that makes this a necessary read for me.