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VINTAGE READING: A Personal Tour of Some of the World's Best Books

Somehow, despite myself, I'd gotten stuck in the same stupid bind as everybody else. By the early 1980s, after more than a decade spent keyboard-pecking and deadline-squirming to the freelance writer's quickstep, I felt like every harried business executive, teacher, programmer, or parent -- or, for that matter, like every drudge of a nine-to-fiver: I loved to read yet wasn't reading much. And what I did read was usually what I had to read. Oh, one time an assignment to profile Yiddish storyteller Isaac Bashevis Singer gave me the chance to read some of his strange, otherworldly creations. And a piece about city living sent me back to Jane Jacobs' classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, But more often, I suffered the sad affliction of our age: Hopelessly caught up in the now, I had no time for those great old books of richness, subtlety, and originality I'd grown up hearing about, that were part of my cultural heritage, and that I really wanted to read.

As it happens, my writing included the occasional book review, usually of books editors assigned to me. But, the thought struck me one happy day, what if I picked what I'd review? And not books just then the object of some publicist's intemperate pleadings, but classics of their kind, ones that had been around for fifty years, or five hundred.

I approached an editor at the Baltimore Sun. Would he be interested in reviews of old books? No, not too often, I assured him. Not so often as to compete for editorial space with the latest war, fashion, or scandal. But maybe, say, once a month?

Thus was born "Vintage Reading," a column which appeared first in the Baltimore Sun, then for much longer in the Evening Sun (now sadly folded into its bigger brother) and concurrently, for a while, in the Los Angeles Times, where it was called "ReReading...

...The eighty books I've written about for Vintage Reading include, by my count, thirty-eight American authors, five German or Austrian, five French, two Italian, and twenty-two British. Thirty-three are fiction, the rest non-fiction. Forty-seven first appeared after 1900, fifteen in the nineteenth century, eight in the previous three centuries, one in the early Christian era, nine in antiquity. Ten were penned by women, at least half a dozen by homosexuals, none by Hispanic authors, two by African-Americans. Eight have an Asian setting or "Eastern" flavor, four raise identifiably Jewish themes or subjects. One takes place on Mars. Books by tyrants, knaves, curmudgeons, and misanthropes number at least five. In a spirit of usefulness, I dutifully transmit the results of these calculations. I leave to others to figure out what they mean.

-- From my introduction to the Bancroft Press edition, 1998

Publishing History

Bancroft Press, 1998
Kindle edition, 2010

Literary Guild featured alternate

Selected reviews: Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, Washington Post Book World, Book Report, Cleveland Plain Dealer

Abbreviated Table of Contents

1. On Everyone's List of Literary Classics...As I Lay Dying, Faulkner; My Antonia, Cather

2. On Many a List for Burning: Heretics, Subversives, Demagogues...Mein Kampf, Hitler; Native Son, Richard Wright

3. Books That Shaped the Western World...The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith; The Origin of Species, Darwin

4. Making Hard Work Easy: The Great Popularizers... Microbe Hunters, de Kruif; What to Listen for in Music, Copland

5. Not Robinson Crusoe, Not Brave New World...A Journal of the Plague Year, Defoe; The Doors of Perception, Huxley

6. Lighter Fare: Good Reads, Best Sellers...The Rise of David Levinsky, Cahan; The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury

7. "But I Know What I Like": On Aesthetics and Style...The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin; The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, Kenneth Clark

8.One-of-a-Kinds...A Room of One's Own, Woolf; The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn

9. The Realm of the Spirit: Holy and Human...Confessions, St. Augustine; The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James