George Vecsey's 6 favorite books
Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels by Richard Halliburton (out of print). Choosing 100 favorite books would be easy. Six is tough, so I’ll narrow things by naming books I discovered at impressionable ages. In grade school, I came across Halliburton—swimming in the Panama Canal, crossing the Alps on an elephant. The writings of this American adventurer gave me wanderlust to last a lifetime.
The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by John Tenniel (Norton, $30). I was shaped by this book’s whimsical drawings and text: "’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves," indeed. As a journalist, I keep running into the White Rabbit and the Red Queen. In fact, I spotted the Mad Hatter on television just the other day.
Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe (Scribner, $18). My parents introduced me to Wolfe at 15, and soon I was staying up past midnight to join Wolfe’s family in Asheville, N.C. Wolfe felt like such an observer, an outsider—a writer—that he filled my teenage heart with a major dose of angst and ambition.
The Southpaw by Mark Harris (Bison, $17). Every few years I return to this perfect book about a freethinking left-hander, his radical influences, his earnest and cynical teammates, a crusty manager, and goofy sportswriters. In other words, nothing ever changes in this American sport.
Ulysses by James Joyce (Random House, $25). I can still hear Dr. Hull at Hofstra, reading passages that opened up the inner life of Dubliners on June 16, 1904. I go back now and then to rediscover phrases like “the feety savour of green cheese” and “they drank in jocoserious silence.”
Mary Lincoln by Ruth Painter Randall (out of print). This unheralded book, picked up for pennies by my wife a decade ago, stands in for all the biographies and histories to which I gravitate. It introduced me to a motherless girl in Kentucky who spoke French, had political yearnings, and learned about slavery from watching her beloved Mammy Sally feeding fugitives out the back door.