Eight extraordinary books offer a rich self-education

Boiling down and expanding a two-year quest for the very best road maps to personal culture

Instant Culture Redux

August 15, 1999|By Terry Teachout | By Terry Teachout,Special to the Sun

Asked where he went to school, Malcolm X answered, "Books are my alma mater." I've always treasured that reply, for though I have a college degree (undergraduate only!), most of my real education took place after hours, in the stacks of public libraries and the aisles of used bookstores.

That's why I started writing "Instant Culture" for The Sun: I believe that well-chosen books can immeasurably broaden the cultural horizons of anyone who takes the time and trouble to read them. So far, in these pieces, over two years I've recommended 100-odd books on subjects ranging from fine dining to country music. Each one occupies an honored place on my shelves, and each has taught me something valuable about the vast and splendid world of Western culture.

Looking back over "Instant Culture" columns, I see that some of the books about which I wrote are no longer in print, while others have been superseded by new and better titles -- though most remain available, and invaluable. In addition, many have since been published in less expensive paperback editions.

It struck me that readers might find useful this revised and updated shelf of eight books on cultural subjects, all currently in print, that continue to rank among those I believe to be most valuable and informative:

1 "A Biographical Dictionary of Film," by David Thomson (Knopf, $27.50 paper). Of the many books I have praised in "Instant Culture," David Thomson's quirky collection of more than 1,000 short essays about most of the film industry's key figures is the one I give most often as a present to friends.

Thomson is a man who knows what he likes -- and loathes. In either case, he speaks his mind with candor and wit, and even when you beg to differ, you'll come away seeing things differently, as in the case of his admiring entry on Howard Hawks: "There was no attempt to conceal the stress on masculine values in his films. ... Like Monet forever painting lilies or Bonnard always re-creating his wife in her bath, Hawks made only one artwork. It is the principle of that movie that men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world."

2 "Singers of the Century," Volumes One and Two, by John B. Steane (Amadeus, $34.95 each). These two books, which had not yet been published when I wrote about opera in 1997, contain a total of 100 essays about the great classical singers of the 20th century (a third volume is in the works). Some are household names, others forgotten save by experts, but in every case, John Steane gives them their due, writing with the civilized relish of a born connoisseur, as in his tribute to Lawrence Tibbett: "Exactly what Tibbett 'had once been' was perhaps more accurately not so much a giant as the embodiment of a very human ideal. ... The voice itself betokened manliness, with its vibrancy, its capacity for thrilling top notes and sturdy low ones but settling in the middle where singer and listener could feel most comfortable."

3 "Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 Until Now," edited by Robert Gottlieb (Pantheon, $45; paperback edition forthcoming in November). I've featured at least two dozen anthologies in "Instant Culture," but this is the one I would most like to have edited. Gottlieb, formerly the editor of the New Yorker, discovered jazz in middle age and promptly began devouring its literature with the gusto of an adult convert; the result is this marvelously readable jumbo compendium of criticism, commentary, profiles and first-person narratives by noted jazz journalists (Whitney Balliett, Otis Ferguson) and musicians (Louis Armstrong, Paul Desmond).

4 "Shakespeare: A Life," by Park Honan (Oxford, $30). I still haven't gotten around to writing an "Instant Culture" column on books about William Shakespeare, partly because I find the prospect daunting -- I can't pretend to have read more than a fraction of the available titles. So it is with a mixture of pleasure and relief that I take this opportunity to laud a recently published biography that belongs on anybody's short list of indispensable volumes on the inexhaustible subject of the world's greatest playwright.

Park Honan, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Leeds, has brought together in the compass of one compact, elegantly written volume everything that is now known about Shakespeare, clearly differentiating between fact and speculation. Though a lifetime's work has gone into "Shakespeare: A Life," Honan wears his learning lightly; would that all literary scholars were so graceful.

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