The Porphyry Reader
I make book recommendations with great hesitation, knowing all too well the dread I feel when a well-intentioned friend offers up a book I must read. Please, I think, no more reminders of the scowling stack at the bedside or of the generally sorry state of my literary neglect. At least I suspect I am not alone in the camp of well-read book collectors turned unread-but-still-buying-books collectors. It is a kind of Sisyphusian suffering, the once great reader compelled to buy ever more books he will never find time to read; piling and piling them, eager to open one yet somehow never quite able, overtaken by sleep or a toddler tugging at the leg.
Still, the compunction to share a treasured story seems woven into the fabric of books. Singing the virtues of a well-told tale must tap into the vestigial bard in us, longing to perpetuate personal favorites. So, being keenly aware of my own shortcomings in tackling the recommendations of others, I offer up the Porphyry Reader. It is a list of books that hold a special place in my limbic library and, importantly, count relative brevity among their assets. They are, with a few exceptions, under 300 pages and thus containable to the all-important parameters of the weeklong vacation – that last great reading redoubt. Most are slightly off the beaten path and few are available digitally. Though some may appeal more to a male reader, all are surely respectable in mixed company. Mirroring my eclectic taste in antiques, they combine whimsy and gravitas. If that appeals to you, give one a try. Hopefully, it will not acquire the same patina of those patiently awaiting my attention.
- Between Meals (A.J. Liebling) – Reading Liebling calls to my mind the Holden Caufield line from Catcher in the Rye about reading a book and wishing the author was a terrific friend you could call up whenever you felt like it. Liebling’s humor and his thoughtful appreciation of life’s evanescent pleasures rank him high on my list. These brief essays focus on food, wine and Paris but cover so much more. If you like it for the reflections on Paris, Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon is a good kindred spirit whereas if you’re more drawn to the food, Waverly Root’s classic The Food of France is as clear a labor of love as ever has been written. For more from Liebling, the recent Library of America release of his war correspondence is also terrific.
- Longitude (Dava Sobel) – This is of the genre of popular social science books that focus on a specific object and then pulls back the lens to reveal the macrocosm of all that went into or emerged from it. Salt and Cod by Mark Kurlansky come to mind as strong examples but I know of none as riveting as Sobel’s account of John Harrison’s quest to solve the unexpectedly challenging problem of determining longitude. It is – along with Jared Diamond’s Collapse and William McNeill’s Plagues and People (relegated to the margins here on account of their greater length) – almost a certainty that the science-minded reader will pass the recommendation along.
- Agent ZigZag (Ben McIntyre) – This true tale of an English double agent is as enjoyable as it is unbelievable. As someone who becomes anxious telling a half- truth, it was staggering to fathom anyone living a lie with such moxy. Indeed, it was so riveting that it launched me on a quest for similar stories of Second World War espionage, yielding other remarkable works like Ewen Montagu’s The Man Who Never Was (more recently explored by McIntyre as well in Operation Mincemeat). Seeing as espionage stands at that intersection between fact and fiction, it bears noting that none other than Bond auteur Ian Fleming took part in the conception of Operation Mincemeat. In that regard, it is both fascinating and refreshing to strip away the layers of ridiculousness that inexorably attached itself to the Bond persona and discover anew the starker original as conceived by Fleming in Casino Royale.
- Quartered Safe Out Here (George MacDonald Frazer) – This recommendation presupposes a familiarity with Frazer’s inimitable Flashman series (Flashman at the Charge would be my recommendation for the uninitiated). But here, Frazer turns his wry observations to his own experience in Burma during the Second World War. The color he brings to the story calls to mind his notorious fictional protagonist but the roguishness is here replaced with truly touching reflections on his comrades and the era. This book is (amazingly) out-of-print but used copies can be readily found.
- The Twelve Caesars (Michael Grant) – If you are among the legions who have vowed to one day tackle Gibbon’s epic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire but can never find the time (or stomach), I have a suggestion: read this instead. It may lack the sweep and grand declamations of Gibbons but it amply makes up for it in concision and clarity. It’s also considerably briefer at just over 300 pages and, seeing as it charts the apogee of the Roman Empire, probably makes a better prelude to Gibbons than vice versa.