- - Sunday, April 28, 2019


By Wm. Roger Louis

I.B. Tauris, $35, 337 pages

It might seem a bit presumptuous for a lone academician to compile a list of “indispensable” books for the rest of us. The very adjective smacks of “required reading,” a concept most people discard at graduation or associate with pretentious collections like “The Great Books” and “Harvard Classics,” one-size-fits-all prescriptions for mass enlightenment.

But any doubts I harbored about Professor Wm. Roger Louis‘ catalogue of 1,001 “indispensable” books evaporated as I read the disarming opening lines of his introduction: “The phrase ‘1,001 indispensable books’ raises the immediate question, indispensable for whom? The answer is: for myself alone, ” he explains with refreshing candor, adding the modest hope that his catalogue “will be of interest to the general reader and especially to students.”

For those unfamiliar with the author, allow me to allow him to introduce himself: “My title is Kerr Professor of English History and Culture at the University of Texas, where I am the founder of the British Studies Program, now in its forty-third year. I am an Honorary Fellow of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and a Past President of the American Historical Association.” But, he hastens to add, “present and past job descriptions are probably meaningless without some idea of my background I grew up in Oklahoma City, where my earliest memories include my father reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ to me. At an early age, I was the beneficiary — as were countless others — of a local Carnegie Library “

College and post-graduate studies at home and abroad deepened and widened horizons and provided the ideal training for a polymath scholar with a gift for synthesizing the work of others, as I can attest based on hours of delightful conversation with Mr. Louis when I was the guest lecturer at one of his seminars a few years ago. He is a man who carries his weighty credentials lightly, a model host and that academic rarity, an influential scholar with plenty of strong opinions, none of which close his mind to the thinking of others.

For me, one of the principal delights of “Indispensable Reading” was discovering so many half-forgotten literary favorites of my own resurrected in its pages: Great books — or at least great reads — that many Americans seldom hear about and almost never access these days: “Mistress to an Age,” J. Christopher Herold’s magnificent biography of Madame de Stael, the spirited lady of letters who caused Napoleon almost as much aggravation off the battlefield as the Duke of Wellington did on it; Nirad Chaudhuri’s “Autobiography of an Unknown Indian,” the seething, scintillating fulminations of one of India’s greatest 20th century authors, as Bengali as they come and yet, in his own way, a cultural Anglophile.

There is also A. Scott Berg’s “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius,” a model biography of the editor who took in hand and invariably improved the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and other leading lights of the golden age of the American novel; Czech satirist Jaroslav Hasek’s “The Good Soldier Svejk,” one of the funniest — and most telling — anti-war books ever written; Nancy Mitford’s incredibly simpatico studies of 18th century subjects like Voltaire, Frederick the Great and Madame de Pompadour; Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s monumental memoir, “Present at the Creation”; Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji,” a vast, sweeping novel rich in romance, humor, psychology and suspense, written more than a thousand years ago in Japan, and by a woman at that; and a unique 20th century Robin Hood saga with an Anatolian twist, Turkish novelist Yashar Kemal’s “Mehmed, My Hawk.”

Mr. Louis provides a pithy thumbnail sketch of every book that actually makes the list, plus citing other significant titles by the same authors. It’s a truly monumental compilation, assembled by a master scholar. I came up with only two quibbles after a lengthy immersion in “Indispensible Reading.” While the author found space for the almost too-whimsical English novelist Laurence “Tristram Shandy” Sterne, he omits the considerably more robust and equally influential work of Sterne’s Scottish contemporary, Tobias Smollett. That and the inclusion of Samuel Pepys’ 17th century diaries while ignoring the equally instructive and much more cultivated 18th century memoirs of Lord Hervey, whose first hand depiction of the foibles and follies King George II and his court are nothing short of hilarious.

Mere peccadillos, these, in an otherwise outstanding — and downright “indispensable” — Baedeker’s Guide for book lovers.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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