Pico Iyer: ‘Best Books’

June 25, 2020 at 8:00 pm (books)

The June 5 issue of The Week magazine featured a brief column by Pico Iyer entitled simply “Best Books.” I was pleased to find that of the six titles appearing on his list, I had read four. They are:

Pico Iyer and I apparently share a deep interest in Graham Greene; Iyer has even written a book on the subject called The Man Within My Head (2012). In his review in the Wall Street Journal, Allan Massie sums  Greene up shrewdly:

Greene was drawn to causes to which he could never fully commit himself. He was a Catholic convert who took the baptismal name of Thomas, the apostle who doubted. He found his reputation as “a Catholic novelist” irksome and made of this discomfort and his doubts one of his best novels, “A Burnt-Out Case” (1960). He championed commitment against indifference, perhaps because indifference offered him the stronger temptation, and he accordingly felt deeply the evil that can stem from it. The narrators of both “The End of the Affair” (1951) and “The Quiet American” (1955) are men ravaged by an inability to believe who consequently harm others and also themselves.

Or, as Dante puts it:

The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.

I highly recommend the  2002 film The Quiet American starring Michael Caine. His was a moving and powerful performance in a film that was so relentlessly tense  that I don’t think I could sit through it today.


In re Thoreau, do yourself a favor and visit lovely Concord, Massachusetts, where his spirit resides peaceably, along with those of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and other illustrious notables of America’s literary past. Take along with you Jane Langton’s delightful mystery God in Concord.

Also highly recommended: Henry David Thoreau: A Life, by Laura Dassow Walls.

And then, of course, there’s the quiet power of Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature.

For my write-up of Too Much Happiness, click here.

As for A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry’s chronicle of the unremitting cruelties that characterized Indian society in the mid-1970s was just plain excruciating. I read it soon after it came out in 1995, and I was devastated. It was  brilliant. But it’s one of those novels that you have to recommend to people with a caveat: It will probably break your heart. I know it did mine.

So: The other two title’s on Pico Iyer’s list: One is The Letters of Emily Dickinson.   I love Dickinson’s poetry and have read several books about her, in which her letters have been quoted. Coming as they do from the pen of this undisputed genius, these missives are obviously worth seeking out. And if you buy into the fiction that Dickinson’s life was quiet and uneventful, may I recommend Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, by Lyndall Gordon.

Iyer’s final title is In Search of Lost Time, aka Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. I’ve made several attempts at the first volume, Swann’s Way, and never gotten much farther  than the first few pages. Ergo, I will let Pico Iyer have the final word:

Some writers show us the self; some give us the world. Proust saw through both with enough cool poise to fashion the wisest, deepest — and funniest — handbook to life this side of a Buddhist sutra.

Marcel Proust



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