Recommendations Game

Apropos of Suderman’s last: here’s another game. What books are you most likely to recommend to others that they read?

The point of the game is to chuck out the stuff that both everybody knows is great and therefore tells them nothing about either you or the relevant work (“one of my favorite movies is ‘The Godfather’”) and the stuff that may have profoundly affected you but that most people won’t care about (“Frank Moore Cross’ ‘Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic’ was the book that convinced me to abandon my original plan to become an underwater welder and instead pursue a PhD in bible criticism”), leaving you only with those works that lots of people you meet or know might be interested in if only they knew about them.

My way-too-quickly-constructed-list of novels, nonfiction books (including memoir and biography), and movies, limiting myself to five of each.


Housekeeping, by Marilyn Robinson. Robinson is what a truly great stylist ought to be: someone whose style you don’t even notice until you think about it. This is also one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read, and similarly, you won’t even notice it’s terrifying until you stop and think about it.

The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro. This dreamlike doorstop about a conductor on tour in an unnamed central European country for a concert is a bit of a personal favorite, and I keep recommending it to people who don’t wind up finishing it. I’m not going to stop, though; it’s just too wonderful a book.

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, by G. B. Edwards. By contrast, everyone I’ve ever recommended this first-person novel about a man born and raised on the island of Guernsey to has fallen in love with it. You won’t want to part with this very distinctive voice, and the funny thing is that nobody even knows who wrote it.

The Bat Poet, by Randall Jarrell. “A bat is born, naked and blind and pale . . .” Technically a children’s book, both an instructive book about poetry, and a delightful book of poems, and a touching book about being a poet.

Watership Down, by Richard Adams. Actually, enough people I’ve recommended this one to have already read it that it probably doesn’t deserve to be on this list, but boy is it a fabulous book.


Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, by Yossi Klein Halevy. The memoir of a man who has really thought about his life. Which is true of surprisingly few of them. Plus, one of the more insightful books I know about a particular kind of American Jew, a kind that has had more than a little influence on recent history.

Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare, by Stanley Cavell. Proof that you can be profoundly influenced by a book you read in your late 30s. I’m recommending this to everybody who would ever consider reading a book of literary criticism. The essays on Lear and Othello are still ringing in me.

Rites of Spring, by Modris Eksteins. The first book of cultural history that I ever read, and I don’t think I’ve read one since that measured up. A tour-de-force interpretation of modernism as a cultural phenomenon, its origins and its consequences.

A Worker in a Worker’s State, by Miklos Haraszti. A book that deeply moved me in college, a rare instance of what I’d have to call romantic left-wing criticism of Communism by someone actually from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Democracy and Distrust, by John Hart Ely. A bit of an odd-man out in this collection, but Ely’s book, which I read in college, was probably the best effort to make sense of our liberal constitutional order with minimal resource to eternal verities metaphorically handed down from Sinai. Still worth grappling with.


“Babe: Pig in the City.” Imagine Taxi Driver directed by David Lynch . . . as a kids’ movie. Yeah. But there are scenes in it that will absolutely break your heart. (“Thank you for waiting.”)

“Vanya on 42nd Street.” The best production of Chekhov I’ve ever seen, and some of the best acting by a phenomenal cast led by Wallace Shawn and Julianne Moore. Plus the most creative use of an intermission in a cinematic treatment of a play.

“Flirting With Disaster.” A very personal movie for me, but also riotously funny. Deserves to be placed alongside the great Hollywood comedies of the 1940s. (In fact, I wonder if Stanley Cavell has seen it . . .)

(Wow – three movies from the 1990s? Yikes . . .)

“After Hours.” Never ceases to amaze me how many people haven’t seen this one. Scorsese’s hate-letter to Manhattan and the entire downtown movie aesthetic. Will give you nightmares, but your nightmares won’t be as entertaining.

“One-Two-Three.” Another one I’m amazed so many people haven’t seen. Jimmy Cagney in Billy Wilder’s Cold War comedy about a Coca Cola executive in Berlin out to conquer the Russian market just before the Wall goes up. “Is everybody corrupt?” “I don’t know everybody.”

Whittling these down to five each wasn’t easy, let me tell you. If I did this again next week, I’d probably make a different list. But hey, the above are all really, really worth reading/seeing. So no regrets.