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Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread


Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread

There is no shortage of books about books you need to “read before you die,” highlighting neglected classics or imagining ideal bookshelves. But few are as useful and entertaining as former New York Times chief book critic and Pulitzer Prize winner Michiko Kakutani’s EX LIBRIS: 100+ Books to Read and Reread. The volume’s only drawback is that if you already have a “to be read” pile that looks like a wobbling Jenga tower, the books you add as a result of her enthusiasm may finally topple it.

Known for her definitive tastes and often withering criticism, Kakutani makes clear from the outset that she’s writing “less as a critic than as an enthusiast,” her goal to “encourage you to read or reread these books, because they deserve as wide an audience as possible. Because they are affecting or timely or beautifully written. Because they teach us something about the world or other people or our own emotional lives.”

Whether fiction or nonfiction, classic or contemporary, Kakutani’s tastes are eclectic and occasionally idiosyncratic, sometimes surprising but never pedestrian. From the breadth of her selections, it seems there are few subjects or genres --- ranging from technology, to sports, to memoirs, to children’s literature, to poetry --- that don’t engage her curiosity. Notably, there is a sizable helping of selections that reveal her as a passionately engaged citizen.

"Whether fiction or nonfiction, classic or contemporary, Kakutani’s tastes are eclectic and occasionally idiosyncratic, sometimes surprising but never pedestrian."

When Kakutani retired from the Times in July 2017, after 34 years as a book reviewer, she made it clear that she had no intention of putting down her pen, instead announcing that she intended to “focus on longer pieces about politics & culture.” Since then, she has produced THE DEATH OF TRUTH: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, a book that I described elsewhere as a “fiery takedown of the culture of lies personified by the presidency of Donald Trump,” and the current president looms over a cross-section of her picks.

Kakutani indulges her affinity for politics and history in reflections on the contemporary relevance of classic works like Hannah Arendt’s THE ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIANISM, Daniel J. Boorstin’s THE IMAGE and Richard Hofstadter’s THE PARANOID STYLE IN AMERICAN POLITICS. At the same time, she doesn’t neglect timely books on our current predicament, including Timothy Snyder’s ON TYRANNY, Elizabeth Kolbert’s environmental jeremiad THE SIXTH EXTINCTION, and a trio of works by Lawrence Wright, Dexter Filkins and Ali Soufan on 9/11 and the War on Terror.

For all her skill as a literary critic, Kakutani also excels at linking the works she selects to the larger culture. In the polyvocal narrative of William Faulkner’s AS I LAY DYING, for example, she identifies an antecedent for the Showtime series “The Affair.” Barack Obama’s DREAMS FROM MY FATHER inspires her to connect the former president’s story of his search for his roots to “both a Telemachus in search of his father and an Odysseus in search of a home.” Even after nearly 70 years, Ralph Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN remains, for her, in light of the racial reckoning of recent months, “a visionary meditation on race and the multicultural heritage of the United States.”

In selecting her more than 100 favorites, Kakutani obviously knew she would spark at least 100 arguments, which is part of the pleasure of any book like hers. Why Lorrie Moore’s novel A GATE AT THE STAIRS rather than her classic volume of short stories, BIRDS OF AMERICA? Why two Salman Rushdie novels, only one by Philip Roth, and none from his contemporaries John Updike and John Cheever? Margaret Atwood, but no Alice Munro? Where are Austen, Eliot, Dickens?

Whether she’s praising the “phosphorescent narrative” of Don DeLillo’s UNDERWORLD, Junot Díaz’s “galvanic” THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO or Marilynne Robinson’s HOUSEKEEPING for possessing the “spiritual transparency of a harpsichord solo and the high, lonesome melody of a bluegrass ballad,” EX LIBRIS’s compact entries feature countless examples of Kakutani’s gift for language. The only impediment to devouring the book in an evening or two is the urge to put it down and immediately take up one of her recommendations. Enhancing her prose are the charming bookplate-style illustrations of Dana Tanamachi.

One wishes that EX LIBRIS were twice as long, but Kakutani admits that she “easily could have added another hundred books that are equally powerful, moving, or timely,” and it’s not hard to imagine the difficulty she faced in winnowing her favorites from a lifetime of immersion in books to a manageable number. Someone who admits that since her childhood she’s been “hungry for words” has served up a delectable feast for the rest of us.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on October 30, 2020

Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread
by Michiko Kakutani

  • Publication Date: October 20, 2020
  • Genres: Essays, Literary Criticism, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Clarkson Potter
  • ISBN-10: 0525574972
  • ISBN-13: 9780525574972