A short booklist for the scholar and the casual reader
When I first asked Dr. Brett Bourbon, associate professor of English at the University of Dallas, for a list of books that he would recommend to everyone, he was hesitant to respond. Different sorts of books resonate with different types of people, so Bourbon said he usually takes into account the individual before he recommends books to his students. However, after careful consideration, Bourbon did share a list of his favorite books, which he would never travel abroad without.
The first and most well-known of these books is “Pride and Prejudice,” by Jane Austen, which Bourbon described as joyful and always worth the read.
“Deep River,” by Japanese Catholic Shusaku Endo, was next on Bourbon’s list. “It’s quiet, about the everyday,” Bourbon said, “but there’s something fundamental about life and faith.”
The next compelling read walks the line of fiction and nonfiction. “The Enigma of Arrival,” by V.S. Naipaul, is a book that Bourbon especially loves to teach in his classes, but often does not get to.
“The Sight of Death” by TJ Clark is perhaps more politically controversial, but Bourbon puts differing opinions aside in appreciation for this book which travels beyond politics and into the magnificent world of the arts.
Finally, Bourbon loves “A Guest for the Night” by Jewish-Israeli author S.Y. Agnon. “The writing is something like the living,” said Bourbon, “it’s one of those books that I can’t ever decide if I should read fast or slow.”
To Bourbon, this wide variety of unique books is not only a source of joy, but also a stimulant of feeling, thought, goodness and imagination, making me consider what books I would bring with me to another country. “But the reality,” said Bourbon, “is they’ve become part of me and part of what I find good in the world.”
But what could possibly connect these English, Japanese-Catholic, Trinidadian and Jewish-Israeli novels together? With such a varied list of favorite books, I was curious as to what commonality might reveal something of Bourbon’s personal literary preference.
“[These books] are attempting to see some aspect of life as a whole and they’re addressing ‘why live?’” said Bourbon, upon being asked what a commonality might be. “They are as much concerned with the mystery of life and its beauty as they are with giving some sense of how it all fits together.”
Not only are these books intellectually enjoyable, but to Bourbon, they are also practical.
“I picked books here that have this scope of life,” said Bourbon, “if you’re struggling or even if you just want to get a perspective on what you’re doing, what you might do, these are books that will give you that.”
Considering his rich yet succinct list, Bourbon was understandably hesitant to choose one hypothetical book to read for the rest of his life. However, he ultimately chose historical books that he said he could “live inside,” a choice between Plutarch’s “Lives” and Herodotus’ “Histories.” “One of these books plus a notebook so I could write my own,” laughed Bourbon.
As I listened to Bourbon’s description of his favorite books, the commonalities between them he was describing seemed more and more appealing to me as a reader and a person. These five books, agreed Bourbon, are distinctly human, that is, they focus on people, on situations and problems in a special way.
One might argue this is the purpose of all literature, but might these specific books, which focus on fundamental characteristics of human life, be more universally appealing to readers? I, for one, am interested in finding out if these books could be more widely resonant.
But one thing is for sure: for those many UD students who love Bourbon’s English classes, this book list is for you!