"I just read a fabulous book." I adore this sentence, because I know I'm about to be told of a book that so excited the reader that he or she can't wait to share the news. If the recommendation is from a person I trust (and sometimes even if it isn't), I'm expectant, waiting for the revelation. The chance remark might happen at a dinner party or at the market or even over the telephone (cell phone if the news is really urgent). Reviews serve the same purpose, of course, but nothing makes me head for the bookstore faster than a friend touching me on the arm and confiding, "You absolutely have to read this."
I've often—very often, in fact—been at the other end of a suggestion for a good read, and I'm not shy about listing my favorites. I can't say for certain which works of fiction I cherish because they were important to me as an author (in the sense that I learned how to write from them or they helped to shape my sensibility) and which I cherish because they were superb reading experiences. My guess is that the two are so entwined that it would be impossible to separate them.
I have a penchant for short, spare works (as well as for Irish writers), but my favorite novel of all time is not short, not spare, and is written by an Australian expat: Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus
. Hazzard, who recently won a National Book Award for The Great Fire
, wrote this novel more than 20 years ago. A friend recommended it, and I read it at once. I called my friend the minute I was finished. "I can't believe it," I said, nearly speechless. "Neither can I," she said. Since then, the book has become our litmus test for novels. "I read a great book last week," I will say. "Is it Transit
?" she will ask. "Well…no…" I'll have to reluctantly confess, "…but close." A love story embedded within an ingenious plot, Hazzard's book is one that must be savored slowly. I have read this masterpiece half a dozen times, and during each reading I discover something new in its gorgeous prose.
These books have been with me for years; they have their own special shelf in my office. I take them down from time to time, like someone going to the well, but simply seeing their titles can reawaken the thrill of discovery, the sense of escape into a literate and absorbing universe very different from my own. I should point out here that my shelf isn't filled yet and that there's room for a few more volumes—which is why I'll be overjoyed the next time I'm at the dry cleaners and run into a friend who will lean over, touch me on the arm, and utter that most welcome of all sentences.
What's on Anita Shreve's Bookshelf? Read more!