Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

The other day on Twitter, Matthew Jakubowski mentioned a chapter from one of my very favorite books—Tove Jannson’s The Summer Book. I replied back that this book sits comfortably on my list of “perfect” books and just thinking about it makes me want to reread it immediately. Matt kindly asked me which other books were on the list – and I’ve been thinking about this question ever since.

I do not throw the “perfect” word around lightly. I hate rating systems (one of the reasons I quit Goodreads) because they involve a notion of a perfect score and I often cannot bring myself to do this. No book is perfect because books are meaningful and wonderful in so many different ways. But I had an odd reading year and I have been avoiding writing up a list of my favorite books read in 2013, so instead I think it might be interesting to finish 2013 with an attempt to explain what I mean by that ridiculous word “perfect” and why I consider certain books deserve it.

The Summer Book and To the Lighthouse are the books I most often call “perfect” and without any hesitation. But after some thought, here is my list in alphabetical order:

  •          John Berger – To the Wedding
  •          Coetzee – Disgrace
  •          John Fuller – Flying to Nowhere
  •          Laurent Gaudé – Ouragan (Hurricane)
  •          Tove Jansson – The Summer Book
  •          Michèle Lesbre – Le Canapé Rouge (The Red Sofa)
  •          Alice McDermott – That Night
  •          Marilynne Robinson – Housekeeping
  •          Toni Morrison – The Bluest Eye
  •          Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse

These are the books I find myself thinking about long after I’ve finished, and books I have reread multiple times. Until Matt asked me to make a list, I hadn’t considered what it was about these books that make them so perfect to me. But I’ll attempt to do that now. And it should go without saying that this is a wholly subjective list, and the criteria have to do with my own reading tastes and personality. It would be silly to claim that these are “perfect” books in any other sense.

Before I go into the list, you’ll note that I deliberately did not include any classic literature. I worry the list will be too long, and somehow the criteria very different. A perfect classic book is so much different than a perfect contemporary book. (But for what it’s worth, I love Vanity Fair as well as Northanger Abbey, I usually prefer George Eliot to Dickens, and I worship Balzac and adore Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale. Also, Michel Montaigne is my main 16th century squeeze).

Back to the list. First off, these are all novels. I can think of several short story collections that get me very excited—Michelle Latiolais’s Widow, Mariko Nagai’s Georgic & Mary Costello’s The China Factory to name the first that immediately come to mind—but story collections must always be broken up into their separate parts and are experienced, at least for me, with pause and distance between each piece. I’m an intense reader and I love the intensity that comes with a sustained read of a longer piece. We could obviously have another conversation about the “perfect” short story.

Despite my preference for novels, these are all relatively short books. I do have a certain kind of admiration for long, complicated, saga-type books and there are several I consider absolutely wonderful examples of this genre—although under the influence of several glasses of wine, I might be willing to admit that so far not many contemporary doorstoppers have yet to come anywhere near my “perfect” books list—Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai comes close). Yet I have found that time and again a book with more than 300 pages is difficult to engage with in exactly the kind of intense and uninterrupted reading that I prefer.

Thinking about it, the single most important element for me that gets most of these books onto my list is that there is something about the structure or the narrative perspective that is actively engaged with the way the story is presented to the reader. I suppose most good novel’s have the right kind of invisible structure that just simply and elegantly supports the story – and this is great. But I actually love it when the structure sticks its neck out a bit and subtly influences or comments on the story itself. In Gaudé’s Ouragan, for example, there are five voices telling the story of Hurricane Katrina. Some 3rd person, some 1st person – and all very distinctive. They are messy, they overlap, they re-tell parts of each other’s story and they effectively resonate as a parallel human storm alongside the natural storm. In Michèle Lesbre’s Le Canapé Rouge there are two stories being told and the trick that gets me with this book is how the story that appears to be working in service to the main story suddenly rises up and becomes the more important story in the end.

In terms of narrative perspective, what I’m talking about usually falls just a bit short of outright/obvious metafiction but again there is a particular way the perspective influences the reader’s understanding of the story. The 3rd person narrator in Disgrace, for example, who is so close to David Lurie that it feels like a 1st person. And yet this absolutely side-blind narrator manages to depict the emotional/political unsteadiness of an entire population. Or the nearly effaced 1st person narrator in Alice McDermott’s That Night who is telling someone else’s story but manages to make it extremely meaningful to her own by the time she is done. It’s beautifully done. Or John Berger’s To the Wedding, whose entire narrative perspective is a trick of re-writing and storytelling magic. And of course Morrison’s The Bluest Eye with its sorrowful yet angry 1st person narrator and her exploration of another person’s life.

Finally, I very much admire books that involve some kind of dark whimsy. John Fuller’s Flying to Nowhere is the best example of this—pure poetry, a bit outlandish or fantastic, extremely sensual but intellectual at the same time. (I found the same aesthetic in Jeannette Winterson’s The Passion and in all that I’ve read of Barbara Comyns, and I nearly put those books on this list as well). Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book does this without ever touching the fantastic—but the whimsy and the darkness is there, as it is in the most excellent The True Deceiver.

And To the Lighthouse seems to fit all of these criteria. The epitome of a perfect book (to me).

I just know that I am overlooking several books I should like to have included, but these will have to do for now. I’m surprised that I have not put any Nadine Gordimer on this list—I adore her work, and the books of hers I’d most like to include are The Pick-Up and The Conservationist (for her peculiar dual narration) but I will trust my initial hesitation and leave them off. And for the curious, here are a few other books I hesitated about including: Pia Juul – The Murder of Halland, Marilynne Robinson – Gilead, Christine Schutt – Florida, Carson McCuller’s – The Ballad of the Sad Café, Per Petterson – Out Stealing Horses, David Malouf – The Conversations at Curlew Creek, Gerbrand Bakker – The Detour, Agota Kristof – Trilogy, Kirsty Gunn – Featherstone, Clarice Lispector – Agua Viva. All excellent.

Now, I’d love to hear your thoughts – and your own lists if you care to share them. In this way you’ll give me some book suggestions for 2014. And I’ll just finish up here with a tiny New Year’s resolution to write more often on this blog – I miss the longer bookish conversations that can be had through blogging. Am hoping to find some of that again in the coming year.

16 Responses to “That dreaded word… perfect”

  1. Biblibio

    I’ve read only two books on this list (yes, I know, I’m a terribly uneducated reader…) and while neither would make my own list of perfect books, I know exactly what you mean about defining it and how specific a feeling it is, each one with its own unique touch. Perfect books are far and few between (even more than plain ol’ excellent books), but once you find one… it’s yours.

    • Michelle

      I like that notion of “yours” very much – perfect books stay with you in a way that is entirely unique, and unique to each reader. I love to think of all the really good books out there, and I’m so happy to have found a few that have meant even more to me, that are “mine.”

  2. Guilherme

    “I’m surprised that I have not put any Nadine Gordimer on this list.”

    Hehehe, so was I when I first saw it.
    Here goes a (very short) list of books by other authors I’d put in that category: Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty”, Aleksandar Hemon’s “Love and Other Obstacles”, JM Coetzee’s “Elizabeth Costello” and “Até o Dia Em Que o Cão Morreu” by Daniel Galera.
    Looking forward to being introduced to more books by you next year!

    • Michelle

      Guilherme – I love this, I have not read any of the books you mention. That’s the true delight of this kind of list, there is always room for one more. I think I will read Hemon first. I have loved his non-fiction writing and have been meaning to read his fiction.

  3. Anthony

    Hi Michelle, I read your post yesterday and have been musing on the theme of perfect contemporary fiction since. I wholeheartedly agree with To the Lighthouse. On my list would have to be Beckett’s trilogy (I tried to separate them to make a single selection, but they are a single piece of work and deserve to be read consecutively), Kafka’s The Castle, Sartre’s Nausea, László Krasznahorkai’s War & War, Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, and maybe Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart or Breath of Life, but they are too recent and I need more time to let them percolate. Surprised I didn’t list a Coetzee title but perfect is a high bar. Take care, and I share your resolve for longer blogging conversations.

    • Michelle

      These are wonderful, Anthony – and very modern! I do also love Kafka’s The Castle and it’s funny but I don’t think I’ve read Nausea. Must remedy that this month. I wanted to include Lispector but, in the same way, my reading of her is too fresh. I want to let her settle, and I want to read more of her work. However, her The Hour of the Star is inching toward my list the more I think about it… and these last lines:

      “I ask you:
      -What is the weight of light?

      And now-now it only remains for me to light a cigarette and go home. Dear God, only now am I remembering that people die. Does that include me? Don’t forget, in the meantime, that this is the season for strawberries. Yes.”

      I have a hard time finding a more perfect ending. Wishing you a Happy New Year, with many books and many thoughtful discussions.

  4. anna amundsen

    Hello Michelle,
    I’ve thought about this post since you published it. Thought about which books would I name perfect, to be precise. Of all the titles you’ve mentioned, I’ve read only Petterson, Coetzee and Woolf, and I have to agree,To the Lighthouse is beautifully perfect. Here are some others from my list: Eco – The Name of the Rose, Ford – Some Do Not, Marquez – One Hundred Years of Solitude, Manguel’s novella Stevenson Under the Palm Trees.. And, I am not sure whether to include Byatt’s Possession or not, but there it is…

    • Michelle

      Happy New Year, Anna – thank you for your list. I love how many people would put To the Lighthouse on their lists. I’ve now added the books you mention (none of which I’ve read!) to my list for this year and I’m looking forward to them all.

  5. Amateur Reader (Tom)

    “Perfect: Is a useful concept, and it is nice to see you explain your version of it. My version is, I think, quite about different, but that’s irrelevant.

    For example, I have not felt that perfect books “stay with me” any differently than imperfect books. Few would call Karamazov or Pere Goriot perfect. But they stick pretty well.

    I might include The Summer Book, too,

    • Michelle

      It is interesting to hear you say that perfect books might not stay with you any differently than imperfect books – there are certainly imperfect books that have stayed with me for a long time, but they don’t invite me back for much re-reading. Whereas my “perfect” books do this all the time. I want to reread them. I do reread them. I most often still love them, even if my appreciation of them changes over time.

      The Summer Book is so good. I haven’t yet read The Winter Book, but I suspect it will strike me in a similar way.

  6. Rebecca H.

    Thanks for adding to my TBR list! 🙂 I agree with you about To the Lighthouse, absolutely. Also The Summer Book. On my own personal list is Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine. I’m not sure what else I’d add, though. I admire “perfect books,” but I also really love imperfect ones — magnificent, messy failures (“failures”). Of course, there’s no reason we can’t love both types.

    • Michelle

      I have a few more Nicholson Baker on my list – I think you are the one who introduced me to his work. And I completely agree that we can love imperfect books as well – I certainly do. I think this is also what being an avid reader is about. Appreciating books for the different ways they affect us. I have this small list of books I consider perfect for my very own subjective reasons, and there are so many other books out there that I love.

  7. helen

    Hello Michelle, happy new year! I hope you enjoyed the holidays.

    I feel woefully under-read in this company! I’d have to think a lot longer and harder about the difference between ‘perfect’ and ‘enjoyable’, and what my criteria for ‘perfect’ might be, before I could write a list. But it’s an interesting exercise. It’s also given me a list of new books to read…

    • Michelle

      Happy New Year, Helen! I’d love to hear your list of perfect books (or the reasons why you may not have any) when you get a chance.

  8. Stefanie

    Your thoughts and explanation are really interesting. I have no qualms about mixing my classics and contemporary. My perfect books include Mrs Dalloway, Great Expectations, Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, and The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector. Oh and Pride and Prejudice!

    • Michelle

      Oh, you make me want to reread Surfacing – it’s been about 10 years since I read that book. And I was so impressed.

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