John Lahr, a New Yorker theater critic, won a 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award for Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, a biography of Tennessee Williams. Lahr’s latest book, Joy Ride: Show People & Their Shows, is now available in paperback.
Best books...chosen by John Lahr
Elia Kazan: A Life by Elia Kazan (Da Capo, $33). All the forces in American show business and politics come together in Kazan. An outsider’s rage stoked his furious energy and rapacity. Nobody else in the 20th century had Kazan’s career on stage or screen, and no memoirist has left a deeper, more unabashed witness to the brilliant tumult and barbarity of his time.
Lives of the Poets: A Selection by Samuel Johnson (Oxford, $25). Johnson is my literary hero. He was the first to attempt to bring the artist’s life and work together in order to suggest the synergy between them. This book is a masterpiece of criticism: erudition and wit served up with the memorable sonorous music of Johnson’s neoclassical prose.
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville (Penguin, $14). Still one of the great visionary tomes about America’s political system and its manners. The restlessness, loneliness, spiritual fundamentalism, gravity, even fundamentalist itch are all brilliantly dissected, along with predictions about the Civil War as well as the Cold War. A thrilling, monumental work.
Herzog by Saul Bellow (Penguin, $17). Bellow’s protagonist, a letter-writing fanatic who is at once a whirlwind of lucidity and mental collapse, is himself a gorgeous brainstorm. The panache of Bellow’s word horde, his hilarity, his penetration and organization—all combine in one awesome feat of imagination that perfectly captures America’s postwar deliriums.
The Temptation to Exist by E.M. Cioran (Arcade, $15). Whenever I need to provoke myself to think against received opinion, Cioran’s acid thoughts and pyrotechnical turns of phrase do the trick. Cioran, a professional heretic, takes the bitter with the sour; he turns doubt into a philosophical star turn. Hilarious, scurrilous, shrewd, his bons mots challenge the mind and the heart.
The London Encyclopaedia (Macmillan, $33 as an e-book). My secret pleasure and always at my elbow. As an expat who has lived in London for 41 years, I still feel like I’m on holiday, and this book, with its history of the streets, the statues, and other locales, brings London alive in a whole new way.