Thirty for the road

One reader’s dream of a suitcase full of books

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

I became a reader during the summer of 1989. Every day, as the temperature climbed toward 100, I would clamber onto my parents’ roof in Carmichael with a towel and sun block and a book. From up there, the sleepy, suburban streets of our neighborhood took on a strange diorama quality. I could see into pools and over fences. Our backyard, with its eucalyptus grove, loomed at eye level. The heat made everything quiet.

Gradually, as I adjusted to this higher, spyglass view of the world, my eyes would drift down to the book I had brought with me. I’d squint back into Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. I was nothing if not an earnest reader, and that summer I took to 19th-century fiction. I felt trapped in Sacramento—the endless sunshine and good cheer, the summer school. I felt deprived of the melancholy of bad weather. The Brontë sisters were just what I needed.

But rather than hide indoors and devour these books in the air conditioning, I climbed up closer to the heat out of stubbornness. I wasn’t going to be defeated by this environment; I was going to read my way out of it—and I seemed to have chosen books deliberately unsunny for the task. Over the course of that summer I plowed through novels by Thomas Hardy and George Orwell, Virginia Woolf and Henry James. I knew my family had a vacation planned in San Diego, but I took one to England every day.

Whenever I read in the summer time now, I remember—as does my skin—those hours and hours on the roof in Sacramento. What a cheap passport those books were, how well they burned the days. Now, almost 20 years later, one of my recurring dreams is about recapturing that magic: selling all my possessions, shutting down my cell phone and e-mail, and setting off around the country—and then the world—by train with a small suitcase full of great books. If I ever do it, I’ll take things I’ve already read. And if I had to narrow it down to a list of 30, here’s what they would be. I’m not sure they’d all fit in one suitcase, but they’d certainly be worth packing two.

1. Tales from 1001 Nights, Anonymous (A.D. 850). Scheherazade marries the king of Persia, who until that night has executed every one of his brides the next morning. To save herself and her country, she tells him a tale that does not end. Never has there been such pressure on a storyteller, and never has a yarn-spinner risen so well to the challenge.

2. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami (1997). In this hilarious, grotesque and essential novel, an unemployed man loses his cat and sets off on an odyssey that takes him across the past half-century of Japanese history.

3. Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith (1950). It’s been eclipsed by the movie version, co-written by Chandler and directed by Hitchcock, but this dark little gem of a novel will make you think twice about, well, talking to strangers on a train.

4. The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams (1918). All the roots of the modern American memoir—not to mention all the anxieties modernism would attempt to tackle—can be found in this searching autobiography by the great-grandson of John Adams and the grandson of John Quincy Adams.

5. Jane Austen: Take your pick. Read any one of her novels and you’ll realize why so many critics believe the best days of the novel were Austen’s.

6. Hamlet, William Shakespeare (1602). The best play ever written: A profound examination of melancholy and what families pass from one generation to the next.

7. The Cairo Trilogy, Naguib Mahfouz (1956-1957). This epic series of novels about the al-Jawad family rivals in style and grace anything written by Dickens.

8. 1984, George Orwell (1949). Now that his name has become an adjective, the power and strangeness of his vision seems somewhat obscure. At least until you pick up this bold, eternally relevant little novel.

9. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert (1857). No other novel enters the mind of a female character quite so fully or tragically.

10. My Traitor’s Heart, Rian Malan (1990). The author of this miraculous, soul-searching book left South Africa to avoid the draft and returned to document the horrors apartheid had inflicted on his country. This is a powerful, essential work of testimony.

11. Collected Essays, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1841). Whether he is meditating on travel, nature or friendship, he is original and rigorous, a conveyance of the beauties of considered thought.

12. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (1877). There is a reason that so many great novelists look with reverence upon the Russians. This crushing tale about a love affair gone awry is reason No. 1.

13. Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner (1936). As Miles Davis was to the blue note and Walt Whitman to the American poetic line, no novelist from this country showed better the possibilities of what could be done with a single sentence than Faulkner. This difficult, furious book is his masterpiece.

14. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (1952). One of our angriest, saddest, most beautiful novels: The story of one man’s journey from the deep South to Harlem in the ’50s, when his very presence on the streets was a reminder of the “negro problem.”

15. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe (1958). Of all the great novels to emerge from Africa’s independence movement—and there have been many—this story about pre-colonial tribal life in Nigeria is the most heart-rending, the nearest to perfect.

16. The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac (1958).The buddy novel paragon, and a terrific record of the emergence of a left-coast kind of consciousness.

17. The Complete Stories, Franz Kafka (1971). Here’s another author whose name’s been made into an adjective: the highly descriptive “Kafkaesque.” Read the work itself and you’ll realize how much pain and brilliance can be stuffed into a single word.

18. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (1920). She is a master of scene making, of character sketching, of social commentary. But in this novel all three combine to create a portrait of America tipping out of its youth and into a strapping, and dangerous, adulthood.

19. Paradise Lost, John Milton (1667). The most theologically challenging and gorgeous poem written in the English language.

20. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967). This excruciatingly funny, brilliant novel set in 1930s Poland, the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate, and Moscow ranks highly among the great satires—and among the strangest.

21. Death in Venice, Thomas Mann (1912). The story of an older man’s creepy fascination with a young boy in a rotting European city around the approach of the war is on fire with incandescent prose.

22. Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison (1977). Like Ellison’s Invisible Man, this shattering novel is the story of one man’s migration, in this case across time and in search of an identity that is entirely his own.

23. Letters, John Keats (1848 and 1878). The great Romantic poet worked out many of his most compelling theories—like the idea of negative capability—in letters to friends and family, which are astonishingly intelligent, personal and lyrically captivating.

24. The Odyssey, Homer (800 to 600 B.C.). The story of a man’s return home after a war, through detours that would make Harry Potter’s life seem a charmed one, it is the foundational text for almost every novel or epic that came after it.

25. Night, Elie Wiesel (1958). No work of testimony conjures the horrors of the Holocaust and the necessity of remembering it quite like this memoir.

26. The Tale of Genji, Lady Murasaki (early 11th century). The author of the earliest novel in history was a maid of honor of the imperial court in Japan’s Heian period. Written for aristocratic women of the time, the book follows the story of Genji, the son of an emperor whose life is filled with affairs, tortured alliances and the kind of political maneuvers that make Hamlet look like a bit of a spoiled brat.

27. Dubliners, James Joyce (1914). A portrait of a city, a country and a people in 15 of the most exquisite stories you will ever read.

28. Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf (1922). This brief, incredibly evocative story shows Woolf inching toward the height of her powers, rattled by the gouges war has put in her society.

29. Selected Poems, Li Po (8th century). China’s “Poet Immortal” is responsible for a staggering 1,100 poems. Here are the best, the kind of work that slows the world down and makes the page the only thing in existence.

30. Twenty Prose Poems, Charles Baudelaire (1858). The ultimate literary bathroom book, these 20 poems show how much can be accomplished in the simple layering of phrases, the minute study of particulars.