Critical Mass



The National Book Critics Circle regularly posts a list of five books a critic believes reviewers should have in their libraries. We recently heard from writer and critic Geoffrey O’Brien. Here is what he nominated as “five titles I find indispensable to have around.”

Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Works

I find it impossible to give precedence to the stories, poems, essays, reviews, or other writings of Borges; the three-volume set by Penguin (especially Eliot Weinberger’s groundbreaking Selected Non-Fictions) amply displays but does not exhaust his scope. Generated seemingly by the sum total of everything that preceded it, Borges’s work has an uncanny capacity to generate further work in turn, as if he had quietly set in motion some vast and ineluctable mechanism.

Raymond Queneau, Exercises in Style

Like Borges an encyclopedist in miniature, Queneau here compresses the history of conceptions of literary style into a series of telegraphic retellings of a banal and fundamentally pointless anecdote. Barbara Wright’s translation is itself a masterpiece. Usefully supplemented by his novel Le Chiendent (reissued by New York Review, again wonderfully translated by Wright, as Witch Grass).

André Bazin, What Is Cinema?

Bazin brought an extraordinarily speculative, open-ended sensibility to the contemplation of movies. Essays like “Ontology of the Photographic Image,” “The Myth of Total Cinema,” “The Myth of Stalin in the Soviet Cinema,” and “The Evolution of Cinematic Language” have an expansive suggestiveness that goes well beyond their ostensible topics. To talk about movies in Bazin’s fashion is to talk about everything.

Lu Chi, Essay on Literature

This third-century poetic essay, which explores the sources and processes of writing from myriad angles, has not been surpassed in its descriptive precision and comprehensive grasp. It has been translated under a different title by Sam Hamill, but I first encountered it in the version by Shih-hsiang Chen, in Cyril Birch’s magnificent Anthology of Chinese Literature.

Hugh MacDiarmid, The Kind of Poetry I Want

A long poem spelling out, mostly in English but with patches of French, Greek, German, Sanskrit, and other tongues, what MacDiarmid wants by enacting it in lines variously prosy, ecstatic, arcane, strident, and marvelously eloquent as it calls for “A poetry that is—to use the terms of Red Dog—/ High, low, jack, and the goddamn game.” Like much of MacDiarmid’s work it seems to be out of print at the moment, having been seen last in the two-volume Complete Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid (1978, paperback 1985).

Geoffrey O’Brien is Editor in Chief of the Library of America. He is the author, most recently, of Sonata for Jukebox: An Autobiography of My Ears and Red Sky Café.