Clifton Fadiman

Reading I’ve Liked: A Personal Selection Drawn from Two Decades of Reading and Reviewing Presented with an Informal Prologue and Various Commentaries, by Clifton Fadiman
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1941

“In making up the contents of this book I worked within no limitations except my own taste, a certain size, in excess of which volume would not have been commercially feasible, and the usual restrictions of copyright,” Clifton Fadiman wrote in the “Informal Prologue” to Reading I’ve Liked.

“It happens that you will find in this book biographies, anecdotes, brief fiction, semilong fiction, excerpts from novels, sketches, essays (both familiar and formal), a book review, humorous pieces (including one complete book of humor), excerpts from a dictionary, a judicial decision, reflections of nature, a long letter, an excerpt from a speech, and a collection of epigrams.”

There is one constant among all these pieces, Fadiman writes: “I believe everything you will read here, if the product of hands other than my won, is of its kind extremely well written.” Most of the selections come from books Fadiman reviewed for The Nation and The New Yorker between 1927 and 1941. Among the first books to be mass-marketed in paperback, Reading edged out another neglected classic, Margaret Leech’s Reveille in Washington, to place seventh among the best-selling non-fiction titles of 1940. While many of the books have grown from then-current to lasting and recognized classics (e.g., The Magic Mountain and The Grapes of Wrath), Reading I’ve Liked deserves a spot among this site’s sources because it reminds us of some “extremely well written” books that haven’t managed to hold onto an audience as successfully as Mann’s and Steinbeck’s.

Abe Martin’s Pump, Kin Hubbard

From 1901 to his death Kin Hubbard worked on the Indianapolis News and in its columns he created “The Sayings of Abe Martin.” Newspapermen who know their business will tell you that technically Kin Hubbard was the greatest of A|merican paragraphers. His paragraphs hardly ever ran above a sentence; some of them (“It’s the good loser that finally loses out”) are less than ten words long…. You will find in his short, abrupt sentences the essence of that Middle West Lewis and Masters were later to convert into more complex satirical forms. He is a Hoosier Rochefoucauld.

An Almanac for Moderns, Donald Culross Peattie

Though not of their stature, Mr. Peattie has in him the spirit of Thoreau and Huxley. He makes tadpoles and ants exciting, celebrates the charm of springhouses, pays judicious tributes to the great naturalists who have preceded him, comments upon the fact that Edward Lear at twenty was a perfect painter of parrots, ascends to poetry in his comparisons (“the warning cries of herons, like the drop of an old chain on its own coils”), and yet, with all this warmth, never departs from “the scientific frame of mind which does not humanize or sweeten what it must report.

America’s Growing Pains (also issued as Five Cities), George R. Leighton

George R. Leighton, a talented journalist, wrote a book a few years ago called America’s Growing Pains. It deals searchingly with the birth, youth, maturity, and variant stages of decay of five American cities: Shenandoah, Louisville, Birmingham, Omaha, Seattle. To the book, factual, reportorial, and perishable in interest, he affixed a few prefatory pages that don’t seem to have much to do with those that follow them. Almost by accident, it seems to me–much fine writing is almost accidental–he has in this introduction written something extraordinarily moving, rhythmical, and truly American.

The Best Short Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett

I do not suppose many would agree [with a statement by Willa Cather] that Sarah Orne Jewett belongs in the company of Mark Twain and Hawthorne, but there is something in her tender genre work, a Vermeer quality, that may perhaps keep her memory quietly alive after many more vigorous talents have been forgotten.

The Colby Essays, Frank Moore Colby

… [He] was one of the best informal stylists produced in this country, the negligent master of a style witty, humorous, and urbane…. Colby had the kind of discursive intellect that has ceased to be fashionable. He was as interested in how much play he could get out of it as in how much work it could produce.

Death of a World and Verdun, Jules Romains

… [T]he collective novel attempts to give a complete picture of a society…. [Romains] is the greatest of collective novelists and to my minds one of the greatest of living novelists…. Passions, politics, industry, revolution–even these do not begin to exhaust the themes Romains handles with such confident power. He seems to have lived for years on intimate terms, not so much with a variety of characters as with the whole population of a great city: society romancers, poules de luxe, professors of literature, secret-service agents, real-estate speculators, schoolgirls, manicurists, abbes, chauffeurs, coachmen, nymphomaniacal lady novelists, revolutionaries, milliner’s assistants, poets, orators, and dogs…. He seems to me to dwarf all living imaginative writers except Thomas Mann.

Look Who’s Talking, S.J. Perelman

Perelman is very, very funny but he is not so very, very funny as to obscure the fact that he is also an extraordinary prose writer. He’s a good man from who to learn the art of English…. he handles a sentence as a good carpenter does a hammer and he is a master of that kind of comic effect wich arises from a subtle use of the unexpected.

Madame Curie, Eve Curie

Eve Curie’s life of her mother, published in English in 1937, already has the ring of a classic. … In one deliberate sentence, she strikes to the heart of the secret: “I hope that the reader may constantly feel, across the ephemeral movement of one existence, what in Marie Curie was even more rare than her work or her life: the immovable structure of a character; the stubborn effort of an intelligence; the free immolation of a human being that could give all and take nothing, could even receive nothing; and above all the quality of a soul in which neither fame nor adversity could change the exceptional purity.”

The Midnight House, W.F. Harvey

W.F. Harvey’s “August Heat” is what is known as a trick story. Its effect depends entirely on a completely impossible plot in which for ten minutes or so you are asked to believe. It differs from most other trick stories in that a second or third reading cause you to admire it more rather than less. you may not get from a rereading the cold, startled thrill that I think it gives you the first time, but you will get an extra pleasure from observing its flawless construction and the extraordinary economy of style.

Rodeo, R.B. Cunninghame Graham

His first book came out when he was forty-three, and thereafter he wrote only to please himself. His subjects were not popular and he was never widely read…. In London, during the great days of The Saturday Review, he would occasionally turn in a piece so brilliant that writers like George Bernard Shaw were glad that Cunninghame Graham’s contributions were so infrequent, for had he put his mind to it he might have outshone all his colleagues…. [His] prose has the ring of steel.

New York Panorama, from the W.P.A. American Guide series

New York Panorama is a communal project. It issued from the labor of a number of New York writers, some good, some bad, for whom our competitive system at the time had noplace. It is assembly-line composition, and in its field highly meritorious. When I first read it I was struck by the fact that the introductory chapter was composed on a level of feeling and insight to which the balance of the book did not attain. A bit of minor sleuthing revealed that it had been written by a young novelist and poet named Vincent McHugh. Thus we, the citizens of the United States, through our support of the WPA, have all inadvertently become the sponsors of a piece of literature.

The Salzburg Tales, Christina Stead

When I say that Miss Christina Stead’s Salzburg Tales are far better than the Decameron, I intend nothing but disrespect to Boccaccio, the prince of bores…. Miss Stead impales literary butterflies on the needles of malicious paragraphs, weaves medieval legends that sound as if you had looked in upon them years ago through the dim pages of the Gesta Romana, relates funny stories about goldfish that predict the fluctuations of the stock market, and tricks venerable jokes out until they become tiny, twinkling masterpieces of gargoyle humor.

Silent Snow, Secret Snow, Conrad Aiken

[Fantasy] may become necessary to the child, a permanent door of escape from the outer world. It may, as in the Conrad Aiken story … “take the place of everything.” Then it assumes the form of hallucination; a compulsion neurosis is born; and mental derangement, temporary or permanent, may result. This is the situation treated in “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” one of the most haunting tales in our literature.

Small Beer, Ludwig Bemelmans

The singularity of Bemelmans, whether he draws or writes, is his double capacity to see freshly like a child and comment shrewdly like a grownup. The product is an awry wisdom, the wisdom of a reflective innocent who is suprised at nothing and delighted with everything.

The Thibaults, Roger Martin du Gard

If intelligence is the word for Jules Romains, integrity is the word for Roger Martin du Gard. The two men between them exemplify the finest qualities of what was a short while ago the contemporary French novel, and those who follow its course cannot risk ignorance of either. There are many who rank Martin du Gard above Romains and would, indeed, place him among the three or four greatest living novelists.

Other Titles

Reading I’ve Liked also features selections from the following better-known books:

  • Abinger Harvest, E.F. Forster
  • Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, A.E. Coppard
  • The Fifth Column, Ernest Hemingway
  • Fowler’s Modern English Usage, H.M. Fowler
  • The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  • The Long Valley, John Steinbeck
  • The Mixture as Before, W. Somerset Maugham
  • My Life and Hard Times, James Thurber
  • Mysticism and Logic, Bertrand Russell
  • Noon Wine, Katherine Anne Porter
  • Round Up, Ring Lardner
  • Serve It Forth, M.F.K. Fisher
  • Seven Men, Max Beerbohm
  • Short Stories from the New Yorker
  • Speeches, Oliver Wendell Holmes
  • Stories of Three Decades, Thomas Mann
  • The Unknownable, George Santayana
  • U.S.A., John Dos Passos
    While Rome Burns, Alexander Woollcott

Leave a Comment