Pulitzer Prize winner Kakutani, former chief book critic at the New York Times, has been a capacious, eclectic reader since childhood. Aiming to encourage reading and rereading, she presents succinct essays on more than 130 books that she believes “deserve as wide an audience as possible,” ranging from the Odyssey to Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, “an unsparing rumination on identity” published in 2019. In the introduction, Kakutani rehearses predictable assertions about the benefits of reading. Books, she writes, “can transport us back to the past” and “forward to idealized or dystopian futures,” take us to far-off places, and introduce us to beliefs different from our own. They “can surprise and move us, challenge our certainties, and goad us into reexamining our default settings.” The essays themselves are more perceptive, offering fresh, inspired assessments of a wide range of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry: memoir, biography, and history; social, political, environmental, and cultural analysis; nature writing; children’s books (she responds to six Dr. Seuss stories with her own, unfortunate, doggerel), and young adult fiction. Kakutani focuses on many canonical texts, including The Federalist Papers, George Washington’s Farewell Address, Moby-Dick, Frankenstein, Winesburg, Ohio, The Waste Land, The Great Gatsby, and Invisible Man; and on canonical authors, such as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, George Orwell, and Toni Morrison. But surprises abound, including four books by and about Muhammad Ali (“a larger-than-life figure: not just an incandescent athlete dancing under the lights, but a man of conscience who spoke truth to power”); Richard Flanagan’s “dazzling, phantasmagorical” Gould’s Book of Fish; Tommy Orange’s “fierce, sad, funny, and transcendent novel” There, There; the Harry Potter books (“one of literature’s ultimate bildungsromans”; two “heart-stopping books” about the war on terror (David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers and Thank You for Your Service); and a sprightly biography of Frank Sinatra.
A spirited, heartfelt homage to reading.