The Evidence in the (Book) Case

The books that reside on a writer’s nightstand can speak volumes indeed


Readers of crime novels know that much can be determined about victims or suspected murderers by taking notice of the titles on their bookshelves. A copy of the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics with underlinings on the page devoted to toxic alkalis may generally be construed as a dead giveaway. Bound volumes of Soldier of Fortune magazine might similarly hint that there might be more to the victim—supposedly a pacifist vegetarian Buddhist—than just yogic meditation.

You can tell a lot about a writer, too, from the books stacked on his or her nightstand, or strewn on the floor next to the bed. Or can you? To test this theory, I’m going to list—in no particular order—some of the bookish items I keep close to my pillow for late-night browsing. Most of these fall loosely under the category of reference works and anthologies.

Wodehouse Nuggets, selected by Richard Usborne. Quotations from the Master: “As he reached the end of the carpet and was about to turn about and pace back again, he stopped abruptly with one foot in the air looking so much like The Soul’s Awakening that a seasoned art critic would have been deceived.”

ABC for Book Collectors (Fifth edition), by John Carter. More a series of witty mini-essays than just a lexicon of bibliographical terms. “Sophisticated: This adjective, as applied to a book, is simply a polite synonym for doctored or faked-up.”

The Guide to Supernatural Fiction, by E. F. Bleiler. An expert on Victorian and early 20th-century science fiction, fantasy, and horror, Bleiler offers capsule summaries and brief judgments on hundreds of novels and tales of the supernatural. Of E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, he succinctly concludes: “Still the finest heroic fantasy.” One of the great works of one-man scholarship.

The Faber Popular Reciter, edited by Kingsley Amis; Famous Poems from Bygone Days and Best Remembered Poems, both edited by Martin Gardner: The kind of old-fashioned poetry that people used to declaim in church halls and under the Chautauqua tents: “Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight, / Make me a child again just for tonight!” (Elizabeth Akers Allen)

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones. A dictionary of the “idées reçues” of fantasy fiction, compiled by one of the genre’s finest authors: “Alleys are the most frequent type of Road in a City or Town. They are always narrow and dark and squishy, and they frequently dead-end. You will escape along them when pursued and also be Ambushed there.”

The Pleiade edition of Voltaire’s Romans et Contes. As Somerset Maugham once said, if you would write perfectly, you would write like Voltaire.

Quotable Sherlock, compiled by David W. Barber: “You have degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales.”

Quotable Alice, compiled by David W. Barber: “‘And what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’”

A Catalogue of Crime, by Jacques Barzun and Wendell Taylor. An annotated listing of detective fiction and true-crime nonfiction. Idiosyncratic and provocative—the authors favor the classic puzzle rather than modern ultra-violence—but no less magisterial for that. One recommendation: The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, a “true-crime” masterpiece by that specialist in the locked-room puzzle, John Dickson Carr.

Edward Gorey’s The Unstrung Harp and The Curious Sofa: A Pornographic Work by Ogdred Weary: “Alice, quite exhausted, was helped to bed by Lady Celia’s French maid, Lise, whom she found delightfully sympathetic.”

Three omnibus volumes of Christmas Crackers: Quotations from the commonplace book of John Julius Norwich. I love commonplace books; the most recent entry in my own is from the photographer Alfred Stieglitz: “Nearly right is child’s play.”

Collected Books: The Guide to Identification and Values, by Allen and Patricia Ahearn (fourth edition); Guide to First Edition Prices, by R.B. Russell (8th edition). Whenever I browse in these pages and see what some modern firsts are going for, I realize I should take better care of my books.

The Hundred Headless Women and Une Semaine de Bonte, both by Max Ernst. Two exceptionally disturbing graphic novels by the great surrealist. Similar collagist masterpieces: E.V. Lucas and George Morrow’s lighthearted What A Life! and Tom Phillips’s touching A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel (three editions, all different, all necessary).

An inscribed album of Gahan Wilson’s macabre cartoons. My favorite: several seedy, unshaven guys, with crooked haloes and dressed in dingy robes, are standing near a broken lopsided sign that reads, “Heaven.” One guy, clearly disappointed, says to his neighbor: “Somehow, I thought the whole thing would be a lot classier.”

Life Is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days, by James and Kay Salter, who are two of my favorite people (and he is one of our finest writers). Each day brings its own short essay: January 3 is “Dinner with Lord Byron”; March 24, “Waiters”; May 23, “Michelin Guide”; December 22, “Candy Canes.”

Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists, compiled by James Geary. “In skating over thin ice our safety is in our speed.”—Emerson; “God will forgive me. It’s his job.”—Heine.

The Gramophone Classical Music Guide (several editions). Should I try Simone Dinnerstein or Angela Hewitt in Bach’s Goldberg Variations? Or shall I just stick with Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording?

The Englishman’s Room, edited by Alvilde Lees-Milne. Pictures—by Derry Moore—of libraries, studies and book-strewn living rooms, each accompanied by an essay: The stuff of Anglophile daydreams.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, et. al; The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, edited by John Clute, John Grant, et al. The most intelligent literary reference books in the world.

The Literary Life: A Scrapbook Almanac of the Anglo-American Literary Scen from 1900 to 1950, by Robert Phelps and Peter Deane. Its principal author, Robert Phelps, was the first “literary man” I ever met—and the kindest and best.

The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh. Our anti-modern Voltaire.

Despite all these books being close at hand, I still tend to gravitate to specialized periodicals at bedtime. Some of my favorites include Wormwood, a journal devoted to “literature of the fantastic, supernatural, and decadent”; Locus, the trade magazine of science fiction and fantasy; The Baker Street Journal; Extraordinary Voyages: The Newsletter of the North American Jules Verne Society; Knight Letter, the magazine of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, and old issues of All Hallows: The Journal of the Ghost Story Society; Million: The Magazine About Popular Fiction; and The Journal of the Arthur Conan Doyle Society.

I also find several Asian classics particularly restful late at night, such as the works of Chuang Tzu, Mencius, and Confucius. The Tao Te Ching, in particular, offers not only gnomic injunctions on how to live but at least one essential piece of advice for any writer: “Know when to stop.”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post and the author, most recently, of Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. Its essays originally appeared on the home page of The American Scholar.


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