One-Minute Book Reviews

October 27, 2006

John Carey Picks the 50 Most Enjoyable Books of the 20th Century

A witty guide for reading groups and others that focuses on books, not on whether to serve gin with The Great Gatsby

Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century’s Most Enjoyable Books. By John Carey. Faber and Faber, 173 pp., $14, paperback.

Reading group guides are thick on the ground this year, and some offer strong opinions on almost everything except books — refreshments, meeting times, power plays among members. All the more reason, then, to savor Pure Pleasure, a collection of 50 witty and literate essays on modern classics. This is not a reading group guide in the usual sense. But any group would benefit from taking some of its suggestions, and not just because John Carey wouldn’t dream of telling you, as one recent guide does, that strawberries are the “go-to fruit” for book clubs.

Part of the charm of Pure Pleasure lies in the brevity and directness of its essays, which first appeared in the Sunday Times of London. Secure in his reputation as one of England’s most admired critics, Carey has neither the need nor the desire to wear his erudition like a top hat at a royal wedding. His method is to dive straight into what interests him most about a book and wrap up his review in about 800 words. Here are the first lines of his essay about John Updike’s A Rabbit Omnibus: “Updike’s Rabbit saga is often praised as a lifelike portrait of middle-America in the second half of the 20th century. This should give grave offense to middle-America.” And here is how he introduces Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled: “This is a book about stress, a problem of epidemic proportions in our culture that modern fiction largely ignores.” Carey’s writing is never harder to understand than that, yet it is full of insights into works as different as The Great Gatsby, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats.

Several aspects of Pure Pleasure might give pause to an American book group. Carey writes mainly about authors from Britain and Ireland with a scattering from France, Germany, the U.S. and elsewhere. Many of his choices reflect tastes that, however refined, have fallen from fashion. (How many people would today appreciate the wit of S. J. Perelman, famous for such lines as, “I’ve got Bright’s Disease, and he’s got mine”?) And Carey considers only five women: Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield, Stevie Smith, Muriel Spark and Sylvia Townsend Warner.

But you could argue that, for the same reasons, Pure Pleasure is an ideal complement to book group guides that take their cues from the current bestseller lists. Without ever saying so directly, this is a book that reminds us that long before Bridget Jones flirted with Daniel Cleaver by interoffice e-mail, Philip Larkin wrote: “In everyone there sleeps/A sense of life lived according to love.”

Best line: “The current vogue in university English departments is to reduce literature to politics — a way of engaging in the class war without actually risking income and politics.”

Worst line: On Elizabeth Bowen: “No writer has ever pursued people’s thoughts and feelings — or half-formed thoughts and half-recognized feelings — with such intricacy.” Take that, Shakespeare.

Recommended if … you like John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald better than Amy Tan and Jane Smiley, and George Orwell or Evelyn Waugh better than any of them.

Published: 2000

Consider reading also: A Reader’s Delight (Dartmouth, 1988), a collection of 40 brief and elegant essays that the author and critic Noel Perrin for the Washington Post about some of his favorite books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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