If you enjoy books about books, Jonathan Yardley's collection of reviews, "Second Reading," is sure to bring you pleasure. For the past 10 years, Yardley has contributed incisive, beautifully written pieces to the Washington Post that encourage readers to read books that nobody reads anymore. "The court of literary opinion," he ruefully writes, "is not more fair or just than the court of public opinion." In Yardley's appellate court, however, books that delighted our parents and grandparents are dusted off, described and made brand new.
There is a very personal quality to each of these reviews. Yardley describes when he first encountered the book, what he felt at the time, how his impressions have weathered the decades. He is a passionate reviewer and I enjoyed being swept along by the force of his enthusiasm. Flannery O'Connor, for example, is "one of the essential writers of my life." Nabokov's "Speak, Memory" "is a book I absolutely, unconditionally love." James Thurber is "a true American treasure." No cool qualifiers here. Yardley is willing to mention books that he regards as unreadable garbage, but "Second Reading" is a book about fandom and he is out to turn our attention from the latest trends to the enjoyment to be found in "worthy older books."
Each review offers us a sense of the author and a context for placing the work as well as Yardley's keen judgments about literature. We learn why Robert Lewis Taylor's biography of W.C. Fields may not be the most accurate but is the best. We find out why John Cheever and Toni Morrison never surpassed early novels, and why C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series has it all over Patrick O'Brian's novels of the sea.
A few caveats: The reader will search in vain for suggestions about sci-fi novels or thrillers. John D. MacDonald's "The Dreadful Lemon Sky" is the lone representative of the mystery genre. No poetry here, no plays. Yardley's list is not exclusively American, but close to it.
At the same time, Yardley loves memoirs, especially those that focus on journalism and sports. Stanley Woodward's "Paper Tiger," for instance, is an "engaging and funny ... hymn to newspapering." Fellow journalists H.L. Mencken ("Newspaper Days") and Benjamin Franklin ("Autobiography") also appear. And what can be better summer reading than a baseball book (my cards on the table)? Yardley recommends Jim Brosnan's baseball diary, "The Long Season" (1960), the first of the baseball memoirs to violate its "code of omertà."
The reviews are organized chronologically, as they appeared in the Post. So Suetonius' "The Twelve Caesars" is sandwiched in between Margaret Leech's history of Washington, D.C., during the Civil War and Kingsley Amis' "Lucky Jim." "Second Reading" is something like the shuffle feature on your MP3.
Yardley's writing is forthright and lively, and he makes me want to read books by the authors he touts. Ellen Glasgow? Shirley Ann Grau? William Bradford Huie? Yes, yes, yes!
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.