Feature

William Gass

William Gass is professor emeritus of humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. His most recent work is Tests of Time (Knopf, $25), a collection of essays. Here he picks six of his favorite books.

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce (Penguin USA, $17). James Joyce’s last work should be savored in brief succulent bites in a place, like the shower, where one can sing with one’s mouth full, and without shame. Along with Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, it is perhaps the best bathroom book—Joyce on the jakes—unless nibbling interferes with other natural functions.

Some Do Not by Ford Madox Ford. The first volume of the Tietjens quadrilogy, Parade’s End, is here because its love affair is treated as if love were real: simply, honestly, and without irony—two qualities, plus one that’s absent, that are in these days rare. (Parade’s End is published by Penguin USA, $18)

Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke (W.W. Norton & Company, $9). Reminds me that human beings can occasionally overcome the metaphysical conditions of their existence and accomplish something that may go a little way toward justifying our mostly mean-spirited and vicious history.

Eupalinos by Paul Valéry (French & European Publications, $12). Worthy of Plato at his most poetically profound. In this great dialogue about building, the mind makes its own music, a music performed by a virtuoso of both art and idea. Valéry shows why architecture is the supreme art, if only metaphorically.

Last Poems by W.B. Yeats (out of print). In old age one lives late Yeats, knows his lust and rage as if they were one’s own, and how he makes the merely cantankerous into lasting eloquence. Last Poems is so right it hardly matters where it’s opened: “What shall I do for pretty girls/Now that my old bawd is dead?”

The Symposium by Plato (Penguin USA, $9). A re-reader’s delight, always offering something new to accompany its familiar good news. Denser than Borges, as deep as Kant, as sweetly sensuous as Colette, as well formed as the Beauty it celebrates.

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