Paul Mason, one of the BBC economics correspondent (all of whom do excellent blogs), is running a lovely Christmas challenge at the moment – the 50 books which your library has to have.
The challenge was apparently first made in 1930 by an American journalist who received a letter from a friend who wrote:
"As for the library, I want no more than fifty books. And none of them modern; that is, no novels that are coming off the presses these last ten years. Are there fifty intelligent books in the world? If you have time send along a list of fifty books, I promise to buy them and have them beautifully bound. I am consulting you as I would my lawyer. I have not time to develop a literary consciousness at my age. So if you were cutting your own library down to fifty books, which books would you keep?"He has made the challenge more difficult by preventing us from consulting our shelves or the internet – so I did my best last night but have now had the time to reflect more and consult some booklists; What follows is therefore a slightly updated version of the entry I posted on his site (number 81 I think)
A library should be for consulting – the glories of novels, short stories, poetry, essays should be available there but also art and human knowledge. With only 50 books allowed, novels (of any sort) will have to be excluded - which means no “Buddenbrooks” (Thomas Mann) or “Candide” (Voltaire) let alone any of the powerful South Americans (Jorge Amado's "Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon", Allende’s “Eva Luna”, Marquez’s , “Love in the Time of Cholera” or Llosa ‘s “The War of the End of the World”) or Yehoshuova’s “The Liberated Bride” from Israel.
However, some books come in multi-volume collections eg Lewis Crassic Gibbon’s “Sunset Song”; Lawrence Durrell’s “The Alexandrian Quartet”; Olivia Manning’s “Balkan Trilogy”; and Naguib Mahfouz’s “Children of the Alley” and therefore give good bangs for bucks. Perhaps they might be allowed to stay.
And remember what Nassim Taleb calls Umberto Eco's "antilibrary" concept - that read books are less valuable than unread ones - a library should be a research tool. Collections of essays, poetry and short stories also give much more reading per book (unless it’s War and Peace) - so the collected poetry of Brecht, TS Eliot, Norman McCaig and WS Graham would be the first four books; as well as the Collected Short Stories of Nabokov, William Trevor, Carol Shields, Heinrich Boell and Alice Munro; and the essays of Montaigne.
If allowed, I would also have a few collections of painters eg the Russian Itinerants or Scottish colourists. Chuck in an Etymology and a couple of overviews of intellectual endeavours of recent times such as Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” and Peter Watson’s “A Terrible Beauty” - and I would then have space for 35 individual titles.
My basic criteria would be (a) the light thrown on the European dilemmas of the last century and (b) the quality of the language and the book as a whole.
The books I would keep (or try to find again) are
Robert Michels; Political Parties (1911)
Reinhold Niebuhr; Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932)
Joseph Schumpeter; Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942)
Arthur Koestler; The Invisible Writing (1955)
Leopold Kohr; The Breakdown of Nations (1977)
Gerald Brennan; South from Granada (1957)
JK Galbraith; The Affluent Society (1958)
Ivan Illich; Deschooling Society (1971)
Robert Greene; 48 laws of power (for the breadth of the stories from the medieval world including China)
Tony Judt; Postwar History of Europe since 1945
Richard Cobb; Paris and Elswhere
Vassily Grossman; Life and Fate
Roger Harrison; The Collected Papers (in the early days of organisational analysis)
Clive James; Cultural Amnesia (on neglected European literary figures particularly of the early 20th century – written with verbal fireworks)
JR Saul; Voltaire’s Bastards – the dictatorship of reason in the west
Amos Oz; Tale of Love and Darkness
Claude Magris; Danube
Julian Barnes; Nothing to be Frightened Of
Michael Foley; The Age of Absurdity – why modern life makes it impossible to be happy
Toby Jones; Utopian Dreams
Michael Pollan; The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Nassim Taleb; The Black Swan – the impact of the highly improbable
Roger Deakin; Notes from walnut tree farm
Geert Mak; In Europe – travels through the twentieth century
Donald Sassoon; A Hundred Years of Socialism – a history of the western left in the 20th century
Theodor Zeldin; The Intimate History of Humanity
Of course Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Machiavelli’s The Prince should be there – and at least one book on the Chinese contribution to the world.
This leaves 6 empty spots - about which I shall think carefully!
This time last year, I was in the mountain house (also with minimal snow) and thinking about the useful literature on public administrative reform!