The Top Shelf

What is this list? This is my list of astonishing romanticism and favorite books that I can at the moment remember. Books that are read and re-read even serially sometimes and what one most wants in literature because through them the old magic runs.

J.R.R. Tolkien
How did he know so astonishingly exactly what so many of us wanted most? Tolkien is my #1 reason for never wanting to have been alive in any age that would not have included the year 1977.

C.S. Lewis
Till We Have Faces is still my favorite book in all the world. But would I really have wanted ever to live without knowing the Chronicles of Narnia or Out of the Silent Planet? I would not. And OotSP I still like more than Perelandra.

Charles Williams
Some people read about Williams and here they find something too weird. I used to think I had no limits on that until I tried to read Rudolf Steiner. I draw the line at Rudolf Steiner, but Williams I find exactly right. His heroines are admirable. I just found a good price on and purchased his Arthurian poetry.

E.R. Eddison
His philosophy is pagan: aristocratic, high and cruel. But also vast, and where will you find a 20th century author writing a romance in flawless, rich Jacobean prose? I enjoyed his Styrbiorn the Strong, so Northern, The Worm Ouroboros is a great work (my review here) and the peculiar and illuminating Zimmiamvian Trilogy I shall read more than once. Eddison dreamed vivid, pagan dreams in detail.

Mervyn Peake
Rich and sometimes overripe, was Peake: romanticism fraught with shadows and derrangement. Slow move his stories, ample in detail, atmosphere and personage. His imagination gormenghastly is voluptuous in invention of a moulting absurd vast . . . satisfying kind.

Lord Dunsany
Now you ought to treat yourself at least to some short stories. I am about due to read the Queen of Elfland’s Daughter once again, I think his only novel. No great developer of character, Dunsany was poetic in his prose and situations and outcomes. Perhaps he may seem light. Fairyland is lighter than a feather on some days.

Kenneth Grahame
If you cannot read and re-read The Wind in the Willows, then there is not a whole lot of hope for you. You simply do not love magic or ordinary things enough.

James Stephens
The Crock of Gold. There’s a recording of it with an Irish reader and much better all the dialogue of the philosophers if you have the right pronunciation. Another pagan work, with the curiosity of being Irish. Stephens was very keen on Eddison’s work.

David Lindsay
The philosophy of Schopenhaur finds its John Bunyan in A Voyage to Arcturus. Amazing, startling often, madly strange. One day I’d like to read some others of his works. My review here.

Ursula K. Le Guin
I haven’t really enjoyed anything by Le Guin like The Left Hand of Darkness. The ideology is present but not much. If I liked books making points I’d probably like G.K. Chesterton better and I don’t get much of a kick out of his fiction. Le Guin takes us into a new world, and I love winter-bound Karhide, the way she tells the tale.

Susanna Clarke
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was well done. A great curiosity, what with the Age of Reason prose and setting for a long, dark, Celtic fairy tale. She doesn’t do things by halves when it comes to finishing a story out.

Kalevala-Beowulf-Morte d’Arthur
These are books through which the magic runs and ran of old. In Mallory you have the charm a paganized Christianity all full of magic. In the Kalevala and Beowulf a view of an old pagan world that can no longer be. Through these I find I long for that old sense of more.

This is for me the top shelf of fiction. You might throw in Dune–which never stood a second reading. I enjoyed the vastness and the twisting of it, but if the test is multiple re-reading, then it failed. Still need to get around to William Morris.

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3 thoughts on “The Top Shelf

  1. I’ve read exactly six of these twelve (and I have to admit that I enjoy some of Steiner’s writing). “Til We Have Faces” is probably my favorite C.S. Lewis work, too. Close call that versus “That Hideous Strength”. I tricked my Canaanite wife into attending a theater version of “Til We Have Faces” during our honeymoon, and I was secretly proud to discover that our first daughter was obsessed with the Cupid and Psyche story when she was very small.

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