OK, so what’s the opposite of faint praise? We’ve all read the reviews that are stretching for something—anything—positive to say about a book: it’s un-put-downability, how faithful the translation is, how nice the binding, how sumptuous the cover stock. But what about the really meaty compliment, the one that sends a reader immediately clicking, or off to the nearest bookstore or library? Whatever a reviewer might offer up about tight plot, fascinating characters, or driven dialogue, truly compelling acclaim is a bit ephemeral. You know it when you see it, but maybe not the moment you write it.
So whether you love Ernest Hemingway or find him an insufferable pompous boor, you can’t deny that when he sets out to praise a book, it stays praised. Lists of Note reprints a bit from an article Hemingway wrote in 1935 for Esquire magazine titled “Remembering Shooting-Flying: A Key West Letter.” While the piece is mainly, and unsurprisingly, concerned with hunting, he also offers up a list of 17 books that he “would rather read again for the first time […] than have an assured income of a million dollars a year.” There are no great surprises in his choices—
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Far Away and Long Ago by W. H. Hudson
Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
A Sportsman’s Sketches by Ivan Turgenev
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Hail and Farewell by George Moore
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
La Reine Margot by Alexandre Dumas
La Maison Tellier by Guy de Maupassant
Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal
La Chartreuse de Parme by Stendhal
Dubliners by James Joyce
Autobiographies by W. B. Yeats
—but my goodness, that’s a hell of a compliment. Especially considering what a million dollars was worth in 1935.
The Esquire article is actually a very nice reflection on reading and where it fits in with other beloved memories. If you don’t have fond lifetime reminiscences of hunting parties, you can substitute something else that brings you back—meals cooked, trips taken, sports played—and call up much the same effect:
When you have loved three things all your life, from the earliest you can remember; to fish, to shoot and, later, to read; and when, all your life, the necessity to write has been your master, you learn to remember and, when you think back you remember more fishing and shooting and reading than anything else and that is a pleasure.
(Photo of Hemingway courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.)