It began to feel to me like an Internet version of one of those parlor games — charades or statues — that people supposedly played at Victorian house parties during the holiday season. I had sent a few friends this e-mail: "I'm putting together a list of books that people have written about their passions. Can you help with some suggestions?"
The deluge began. Friends of friends, far-flung librarians and independent booksellers weighed in. The books I'm about to recommend — mostly slim, unforgettable volumes about places or things that the writers themselves deeply love — made the cut because either I came up with the suggestion myself, or I heartily agreed after reading it. Also, I've kept this list restricted to books that are easy to find. I think the act of passing on a passion is one of the greatest gifts you can give, and I promise you that all the books on this list are merrily infectious.
This was a big year for the pleasures of the palate, given the popularity of the film Julie and Julia. There are a trillion books on food out there, but if you've never read Laurie Colwin, you must, must, hunt up her two unpretentious essay collections called, simply, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking. Colwin died at 48, and when I try to explain the power of her novels and short stories to people who haven't read her, I usually end up saying, "Her writing makes me happy," which sounds sappy, but it's true. I picked up her two books on cooking (definitely not my passion) because I had exhausted the rest of her writing. There are short essays in the two books on everything from "Jet Lag and How to Feed It" and "Real Food for Tots." Here are Colwin's opening words on "Coffee": "I come from a coffee-loving family, and you can always tell when my sister and I have been around, because both of us collect all the dead coffee from everyone's morning cup, pour it over ice, and drink it. This is a disgusting habit."
None of the pleasures Zadie Smith writes about in her terrific, just-published essay collection, Changing My Mind, fall into the "disgusting" category; they're more "endearing," like her prose valentines to Zora Neale Hurston, Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn. This collection also includes some poignant remembrances of David Foster Wallace and Smith's own father, a WWII vet who took part in the Normandy invasion. In the epigraph to this book, Smith quotes Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, saying, "The time to make up your mind about people is never!" The great thing about Zadie Smith as a critic is that you get the sense here that her enthusiasms aren't fossilized yet, but are still being formed as she writes.
Nonagenarian P.D. James has, no doubt, been passionate about lots of things during her long life, but to her worshipful readers (and I'm definitely in that multitude), it's her passion for investigating murder most foul that we really care about. In a new little work of criticism called Talking About Detective Fiction, James elegantly surveys the British and American traditions — and the future — of mystery writing as well as sharing some of her long-tended enthusiasms for, among others, G.K. Chesterton.
James, of course, lives in England, which would be my No. 1 fantasy choice for where to spend the holidays. Not going to happen anytime soon, but armchair travel is cheap and profoundly pleasurable. I received lots of intriguing suggestions for good books about place — Pico Iyer on Japan, Ishmael Reed on Oakland — but the one recommendation I found irresistible was Mary McCarthy on Florence, because I find any occasion to read Mary McCarthy in all her tart brilliance irresistible. The book is called The Stones of Florence, and in it, McCarthy unveils what was then, in 1956, one of Italy's lesser tourist cities. She loves the handmade shoes, puts up with the then-mediocre food, and winces at the "sugary" vision of the city crafted by Victorians like the Brownings.
McCarthy also talks a lot about architecture, and one of the most revelatory appreciations of architecture I've come across is New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger's new book, called Why Architecture Matters. This isn't a history of architecture, but rather something more elusive. Goldberger explains:
"Everything has a feel to it. Not just masterpieces but everything in the built world. The purpose of this book is to come to grips with how things feel to us when we stand before them." Goldberger roams from classic masterpieces like the Pantheon to the architecture of memory, like the modest two-family house of his childhood in New Jersey.
Any book about great architecture has to discuss the New York City skyline, and the minute I start thinking about New York, I think about E.B. White and his magnificent essay on the city called Here is New York. White wrote it in the summer of 1948, when he'd returned to the city from Maine for a weekend and began to remember how magical New York had seemed to him as a young man. Here's the first sentence: "On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy." On any reader who desires the prize of what I think is the essential essay about New York, E.B. White's Here is New York will bestow the gift of nostalgia — tempered with an acceptance of the necessity of change — as well as the gift of an enduring passion.
Maureen Corrigan's complete list: